Jewish World Review April 1, 2002 / 20 Nissan, 5762

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

Energy: corporate or political scandal? | Up to now, cheerleaders for the Bush administration have pretty effectively detoured accusations of involvement in the Enron fiasco by saying it's a corporate scandal, not a political one. They have pointed to evidence that President Bush's Houston pal, Kenneth Lay, and other Enron officials came up empty-handed in bids for special help during the energy giant's free fall to collapse.

For months, Democratic critics were frustrated in their efforts to find a fly in the soup in the Administration's unwillingness to come clean about who attended private meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney's task force formulating the Bush energy policy in its first days.

But with lawsuits breathing down Cheney's neck and that of Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, the White House has responded to one court order with partial disclosure of thousands of pages of Energy Department documents on the meetings. But thousands more were not released, and those that were made public were heavily deleted. So the watchdog group involved, Judicial Watch, will be going back to court for more disclosure.

Also pending is the General Account Office suit for the same information from Cheney, which the administration is bucking on grounds that the vice president as a constitutional officer is not subject to the GAO's reach. So far, the administration has not invoked executive privilege in the matter, but the practical effect is the same.

The released papers show Abraham met exclusively with energy industry officials to the exclusion of environmental interests during most of the policy-making period, and took information and views from the excluded groups, mostly in printed form, only after their noisy protests. The administration policy, when released, was overwhelmingly pro-industry.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who is becoming as adept at sarcasm as he is hapless at informing, dismissed the disclosures by saying: "News flash: It's no surprise to anybody that the secretary of Energy meets with energy-related groups."

Indeed, it is no surprise. But if so, you have to wonder why the administration was willing to be dragged into court and sued by a government agency to get the information, and invite all the inferences and bad publicity in the process.

Washington's most prominent and respected nonpartisan watchdog of ethical conduct and influence-peddling in the federal government, Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, agrees that it's commonplace for administrations to meet with those who support their positions. Labor unions, he points out, have similar ready access to Democratic administrations.

It's another thing, however, when those granted access have been among the administration's most generous campaign contributors, he says. The latest disclosures, says Steve Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics, is "further evidence that campaign contributions get you through the door."

The additional fact that the president and vice president come from the oil industry themselves and have wide friendships with its leaders, Lewis says, makes their stonewalling "extraordinary, and stupid," if indeed they have nothing to hide. Because of these strong connections, he says, "they have an additional burden not to be seen as toadies to the industry."

Dragging out the controversy, even now when a court has forced the release of thousands of documents, he says, simply keeps the negative story alive and amplifies it. "It's almost Exhibit A of how not to handle a political situation," which the energy task force secrecy has now become, Lewis says. Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, which sued the Energy Department for disclosure of its policy-making meetings, agrees that the administration "is playing a high-risk game by creating inferences that it has done something wrong."

Continued administration secrecy, stalling and obstruction risk seriously undermining the argument that the energy scandal is strictly a financial, corporate problem, not a political one. If the president doesn't want the financial and corporate woes of his buddies in the industry to become his own political dilemma, he will be wise to let the light shine on what he insists he has no need to hide.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

03/27/02: Targeting the Federal Election Commission
03/25/02: Campaign finance reform irony
03/20/02: The allure and curse of politics
03/18/02: Political junkies convention
03/15/02: Gore re-enters the arena
03/13/02: Reconsidering presidential succession
03/11/02: Murmurs of a war protest
03/04/02: Dems question expanding, paying for the war
03/01/02: More questions about historians' credibility
02/28/02: Early warning on bio-terrorism
02/25/02: Bush rhetoric, at home and abroad
02/22/02: Strategic influence or strategic deception?
02/20/02: Challenging Gore for 2004
02/19/02: Just a beginning on campaign finance reform'
02/13/02: Taking 'the Fifth'
02/11/02: Campaign finance reform showdown
02/08/02: Dems need a Truman
02/06/02: The Bush budget: Reality replaces poetry
02/04/02: Going after the Axis of Evil --- or not
02/01/02: Bush keeps Dems on ropes
01/30/02: White House task force secrecy
01/25/02: A politically poisonous congressional session
01/23/02: Whither AlGore?
01/21/02: In search of Tom Ridge
01/18/02: Kennedy takes on the tax fight
01/16/02: On the departure of high government officials
01/11/02: The lobbyist as party chairman
01/07/02: Torricelli's clean bill of health
12/12/01: The elevated vice presidency
12/07/01: September 11th and December 7th
12/05/01: Another children's crusade
12/03/01: Stall on campaign finance reform
11/30/01: Stall on campaign finance reform
11/28/01: More Justice Department folly
11/26/01: Ashcroft still under fire
11/21/01: Normalcy vs. security at the White House
11/12/01: Bush's latest pep talk
11/07/01: The blame game on airport security
11/05/01: Bellwether gubernatorial elections?
11/02/01: Feingold's complaint
10/31/01: Putting the cart before the horse?
10/29/01: Show business on economic stimulus
10/26/01: No political business as usual
10/24/01: Senatorial bravado
10/22/01: Split decision on gun rights
10/16/01: New York mayor's race: What kind of experience?
10/15/01: New York: Making a comeback
10/11/01: Giuliani: Fly in the election ointment
10/08/01: One or two New Yorks?
10/05/01: Providing your own security
10/01/01: Getting back to 'normal'
09/28/01: Muzzling the Voice Of America
09/26/01: Bush's transformation
09/24/01: Using a tragedy for a federal bailout
09/21/01: A view of tragedy at home from abroad
09/14/01: Script for AlGore's coming-out party
08/31/01: Scandal and privacy in politics
08/24/01: On replacing Helms
08/22/01: Politics takes a summer holiday
08/15/01: The resurfacing of AlGore
08/13/01: You can go home again
08/10/01: Governors' Conference drought
08/08/01: Governors defend their turf
08/06/01: New Bush muscle with congress
08/03/01: America's benign neglect
07/30/01: Where is the fear factor?
07/26/01: Dubya, Nancy Reagan and the Pope
07/23/01: Bush's congressional dilemma
07/19/01: Katharine Graham, giant
07/11/01: Finessing election reform
07/09/01: Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft
07/06/01: New comedian in the House (of Representatives)
06/27/01: Spinning Campaign Finance Reform's latest 'headway'
06/25/01: When Dubya says 'the check is in the mail,' you can believe him
06/22/01: The push on patients' rights
06/20/01: If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history?
06/18/01: World Refugee Day
06/13/01: Remembering 'Hubert'
06/11/01: Ventura faces government shutdown
06/06/01: McCain doth protest too much
06/04/01: Memo to the Bush daughters
05/30/01: Missing in action: Democratic outrage
05/30/01: Honoring World War II vets
05/23/01: Lauding the Nixon pardon
05/21/01: Messin' with McCain
05/18/01: A great movie plot
05/16/01: The level of public sensibility these days
05/14/01: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States"

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