Energy Department ordered to release task force files
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge has ordered the Energy Department to release information related to Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, a move that environmentalists hailed as a victory for the people's right to know.
The Energy Department said it always intended to comply with a request for documents from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that sued in December to obtain them.
But the judge who issued the ruling, released Wednesday, said the energy agency moved "at a glacial pace" to comply with the group's request.
"Justice has finally been served," said Rob Perks, a spokesman for the environmental group. "We consider this a victory for America's sunshine laws. The American people have wanted to know who wrote the energy plan, and now we expect the information to reveal what went on behind closed doors at the task force meetings."
The judge's order comes nearly a week after the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- filed a separate lawsuit against the vice president, calling on his office to turn over a list of who the energy task force met with and the dates and times of those meetings. White House officials have refused requests for information made by some members of Congress.
The Bush administration has argued that the GAO does not have the legal authority to obtain such information from Cheney and that the vice president and president should have the authority to meet with individuals in private to obtain "unvarnished advice."
The Justice Department, which will defend Cheney, issued a statement Thursday trying to distinguish among the GAO, Natural Resources Defense Council and another case brought by Judicial Watch, a non-partisan legal and government watchdog group. A federal judge Thursday gave the government a one-week extension to hand over administration documents on energy policy to Judicial Watch.
Issues raised in court Wednesday and Thursday "do not have any direct effect" on the congressional agency's lawsuit against the vice president," the Justice Department statement said.
"The GAO suit is not based on on the same statutes as these other cases and is being brought by a government entity that lacks the authority to require the president and vice president to disclose their thought processes or policy-making deliberations," the statement added.
The details of documents relating to Cheney's energy task force gained a higher profile in recent months after the collapse of Enron Corp., whose executives were big contributors to the Bush presidential campaign as well as to other politicians. White House officials have said Enron representatives met with task force officials six times.
The vice president's office referred all questions on the matter to the Energy Department.
An Energy Department spokeswoman said the agency would comply fully with Wednesday's court order. "We are working diligently to do so," spokeswoman Jill Schroeder said.
More than 7,500 pages of documents
More than 7,500 pages of documents connected to the Energy Department's role in helping craft energy policy for the Bush administration would likely be turned over, according to a government official familiar with the case.
The documents likely will include the names of outside interest groups that met with the Energy Department, letters the agency received from groups and what policy those groups were interested in, the source said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a Freedom of Information request with the Energy Department in April 2001, seeking a list of which agency officials sat on the energy task force, names of people from the private sector who met with task force officials and notes from those meetings.
Environmentalists have argued the energy industry had undue influence over the Bush administration's energy plan.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham; the interior, agriculture, transportation and commerce secretaries, Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Office of Management and Budget director were members of the task force, officially known as the Vice President's National Energy Policy Development Group.
In a court order signed February 21, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Energy Department to turn over some of the information the environmental group is seeking no later than March 25, with the remainder to be provided no later than April 10.
Kessler, who said the Energy Department had been "woefully tardy" in responding to the request, called the department's initial response, a release of 33 documents, "virtually meaningless."
The judge said that the department "can offer no legal or practical excuse for its excessive delay" and that the material the environmental group seeks is "of extraordinary public interest."
"The subject of energy policy, especially since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, is of enormous concern to consumers, to environmentalists, to the Congress and to industry," Kessler said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the judge noted, "is particularly concerned about current implementation of the task force's recommendations and their environmental implications, about the secrecy in which the task force operated" and about the participation of nongovernmental officials who were consulted in developing recommendations.
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