Congressional investigators Wednesday demanded that Vice President Dick Cheney make available records of private meetings that he and other White House officials held with outside interests while crafting a national energy policy.
Escalating a confrontation with the administration, the General Accounting Office warned that if the information is not provided within 20 days, the agency will take the unusual step of seeking a court order to compel the White House to release the documents.
Comptroller General David M. Walker, who has sought the information for more than two months, sent a letter to Cheney "to demand full and complete access" to the records, a procedural requirement before legal action. Cheney headed the energy task force.
White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said the letter is under review. "We will continue to work with the GAO to resolve these issues," she added.
The administration has questioned the GAO's authority to demand the names of participants in the meetings, especially since the request was initiated by two House Democrats rather than a vote of a committee. White House officials also have defended the secrecy, contending it was necessary to foster a free exchange of ideas.
Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, assailed the administration for its "secrecy and obstinance." Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, added: "The White House should simply try telling the truth on the task force's activities and stop hiding information that Congress and the public have a right to see."
Although Democrats are behind the latest move, the administration has come under attack from the conservative group Judicial Watch. It filed suit in D.C. federal court this week to compel Cheney to release details on the workings of the energy task force.
Task force members and staff met privately with more than 130 interest groups, from environmentalists and union leaders to representatives of the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries, including financial contributors to the GOP.
Critics of the task force's work contend that it led to an energy policy tilted toward production.
The White House has provided the GAO with 77 pages of financial documents, but the agency is seeking information about participants in meetings, information they presented to the energy task force and minutes and notes of the sessions.
The administration has 20 days to respond, according to a GAO official. The president can refuse to provide information by certifying that disclosure "reasonably could be expected to impair substantially the operations of the government."
Although the GAO has sent similar letters to past administrations, the agency has never had to go to court to compel another federal agency to release information, said Lynn Gibson, GAO associate general counsel.