What Are They Hiding?
Which Brings Us to Enron
Long before the giant energy trading corporation became a household name, Dick Cheney was making sure that the extensive role of Enron and other companies in advising him on setting Bush Administration energy policies would be kept secret. Cheney had been holding meetings with executives and energy "experts" since February 2001, when he set up the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG). In April, press reports indicated that Cheney had met with Enron CEO Kenneth Lay the day before announcing that he would not support price caps on the sale of wholesale electricity in California. Enron was at the time in the midst of a full-scale PR campaign to block such price caps. Representative Henry Waxman, the House Government Reform Committee's senior Democrat, asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the people Cheney had been meeting with all those months.
In May the GAO attempted five times to get information from Cheney; although the request was a routine one, his counsel made the Congressional watchdog agency defend its legal right to such information. In early June the GAO sent a letter outlining the legality of its request. In response, Cheney's office sent financial records that literally made no sense--incomplete lists of numbers with no context. After a series of legal meetings and unreturned phone calls, the GAO's comptroller general, David Walker, decided to play hardball and make a formal demand that Cheney release the information. Cheney still refused.
On August 17 the GAO released a report on the efforts that it had made to obtain information from Cheney's NEPDG, citing legal precedent as well as judicial decisions to argue that the Bush Administration was interpreting the GAO's powers too narrowly. According to Walker, no prior administration had ever challenged the GAO's authority in this regard. For example, as the report noted, the Clinton Administration had complied with GAO requests in many ways. "The information that we are seeking is of the type that has been commonly provided to the GAO for many years spanning several administrations," Walker wrote.
After September 11 the GAO released a statement essentially acknowledging that Cheney had other priorities for the moment. But by December 2, when Enron announced its bankruptcy, this grace period was over. Two days later, Waxman wrote to Cheney, urging that he release the requested information immediately. In his letter, Waxman enumerated many connections between the Administration and Enron, most of them since publicized, both in terms of campaign contributions, stock held by Bush Administration officials and even the fact that Enron had green-lighted both of Bush's appointees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the markets in which Enron operates.
"At the very least, the confluence of these actions creates an appearance of impropriety," Waxman wrote. "I urge you to reevaluate your refusal to provide the public with information about the Administration's dealings with Enron. Enron's collapse has shaken public confidence in energy markets. Continued secrecy from the White House will only compound public concerns."
Recently, in a letter to Waxman, Cheney admitted that he and his aides met with Enron executives six times last year to discuss energy policy. This access provided to Enron, Waxman said, far outweighed the access provided by the White House to other parties interested in energy policy. For example, environmental and consumer advocates never met with Cheney himself, and only once with the task force's executive director. They were not asked for any recommendations.
After the Vice President refused again to name the advisers, Waxman responded with another letter, which essentially accused Cheney of trying to mislead the public about the extent of the Enron-NEPDG contacts. (Waxman also pointed out an apparent inconsistency in the Administration's policy, since on at least seven occasions since taking office Bush has allowed e-mail communications to and from the Clinton/Gore White House to be released to Congressional committees.) As the standoff continued throughout January the GAO announced that it was going to file a lawsuit against the NEPDG to force compliance with its request. This will be the first time in its eighty-one-year history that the GAO has had to sue a federal official or agency to get information, and it therefore represents a truly remarkable departure from the established balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.
Meanwhile, several public-interest groups have also entered the fray: the Sierra Club, Judicial Watch and the Natural Resources Defense Council have all filed suits against the Administration, seeking the identities of Cheney's secret energy advisers.