The White House scored a victory when a judge tossed out the suit brought by Congress' General Accounting Office demanding documents related to Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force. But there are still several cases pending that demand the same information. Host Steve Curwood talks with Russell Verney of Judicial Watch about his group's pending lawsuit.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The secrecy surrounding Vice President Cheney’s energy task force remains in place, at least for now. A federal judge in Washington D.C. has dismissed a suit brought by the General Accounting Office of Congress seeking records of the task force.
But other lawsuits seeking the same information remain active. In one case, a federal judge has ordered the White House to turn over the documents. That order has been stayed pending an appeal by the administration.
I’m joined now by Russell Verney. He’s the national advisor of Judicial Watch, a public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption. Judicial Watch, along with the Sierra Club, brought the case that the administration is appealing.
Before we get to the particulars of your case, Mr. Verney, why do you think the judge dismissed the GAO suit?
VERNEY: When a case comes before the court, and especially one involving constitutional issues, some very difficult issues such as this one: separation of power between the legislative and the executive branch, the court doesn’t have to reach that part of the decision, that tough part, if there’s an easier part that rules the case out.
And in the situation of the Government Accounting Office bringing a claim against the White House, the court was able to say that the Government Accounting Office, an extension of Congress but not Congress itself and not authorized by any resolution or vote of Congress or a committee of Congress, this extension of Congress did not have the standing, the right to come to court with this complaint.
So if they want the court to reach the constitutional issues of separation of power and does the Congress have oversight over this committee, the energy task force that the Vice President set up, the General Accounting Office is going to have to go back to Congress and get authority from Congress to bring this matter to court.
CURWOOD: What does this decision against the GAO mean for groups such as yours, Judicial Watch, and like-minded citizens who want to be able to see just how the government goes about its business?
VERNEY: Well, I don’t think this decision has an impact on groups like Judicial Watch, a nonprofit public interest law firm that looks for abuse in power or corruption in government and investigates and prosecutes.
So, we asked for these records back in April of 2001 under the Freedom of Information Act and we have three orders from the court directing the Vice President to release the information that the GAO was requesting and considerably more. We have contempt motions pending before the court because of the failure to release the documents by the executive branch, and we’re expecting to get some of those documents from the White House.
We’ve already received some 36,000 pages or more from other agencies of the government that were involved in these task force meetings but we want the White House records, too, and we believe we’re going to get those. And if Hillary Clinton has to reveal her healthcare records, which we believe she certainly should have in the healthcare task force, so shouldn’t the energy task force under President Bush.
CURWOOD: By the way, you say you’ve gotten some 36,000 documents. Anything interesting in those documents so far from your lawsuit?
VERNEY: Well, there were quite a few things that were interesting. Many of your listeners may remember that last January, very begrudgingly, the White House admitted having met with officials of Enron and they had a list of, sort of, a shopping list of what Enron would like to see in law. And by and large, they all wound up in law.
So yes, there were a lot of interesting things that have come out of the disclosures so far. We think there is more to come, otherwise they wouldn’t be fighting tooth and nail not to disclose it.
CURWOOD: Judicial Watch is perceived by some as a conservative watchdog group. The Sierra Club is perceived by some as a liberal environmental group. You have joined together, I gather, on this lawsuit, and on the surface of it are rather strange bedfellows. What’s it like to work together on this issue?
VERNEY: The working relationship between Judicial Watch and Sierra Club is very good on this issue because we have common interests that we’re pursuing, which is the public release of information held by the government. Judicial Watch was the first to start this process. Sierra Club, who had also filed a Freedom of Information request, was about a month behind us in the process, but when they got to court the courts then put the two cases together and said, this is all the same issue.
CURWOOD: Thinking back in history, what other White Houses have treated courts this way?
VERNEY: Well, I suppose there have been plenty of conflicts in every White House with respect to the courts. There certainly was a lot of that during the Clinton administration. I don’t know if it ever got to this stage of conflict, but you’ve had legal questions arising over the sharing of information, whether it’s with the independent counsel laws, special counsel laws, Congressional investigations that have led to these arguments over the years, but this has become quite drug out.
And you would think that it’s over a very small matter, the releasing of documents that created a public policy proposal. I mean, we’re not talking Iran-Contra here. We’re talking about a simple creation of an energy policy for America. Who was involved? And the more they seem to want to fight the court system, the judiciary, the equal branch of government, the more you have to wonder what is it they don't want the public to know.
CURWOOD: Russell Verney is the national advisor for Judicial Watch, a public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption. Thanks for taking this time with us today.
VERNEY: It’s been a pleasure and an honor to visit with all of your listeners.
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