Judge orders release of energy documents

/ Source: The Associated Press

A federal judge told the government to release more documents related to the White House task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney that met behind closed doors to develop a national energy policy.

Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group, and the Sierra Club, an environmental group, want the records as part of an inquiry into whether energy executives and lobbyists helped draft a policy friendly to their industries early in President Bush’s first year in office.

The administration maintains that only government employees were members of the task force, which disbanded in 2001.

Judicial Watch has alleged that former Enron Chairman Ken Lay and lobbyists Mark Racicot, Haley Barbour and Thomas Kuhn may have participated.

The order Wednesday from U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman covers material that the Energy and Interior departments and other federal agencies had refused to produce since a similar federal court ruling two years ago.

The latest order could cover some material that is the subject of a separate lawsuit now before the Supreme Court. That case also involves documents about the inner workings of the task force, which was housed in Cheney’s office.

Cheney was ordered to produce some documents, and he appealed that part of the dispute to the high court, which will hear arguments next month.

The Cheney case was the subject of recent headlines because of a hunting trip that Cheney took with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weeks after the court had agreed to hear Cheney’s appeal. Scalia rebuffed a request that he step aside, saying he had no conflict of interest.

Freedom of information issue
Friedman’s order deals with agencies that are subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Federal agencies must turn over more documents by June 1 or explain why they cannot, Friedman said.

The Energy Department and other agencies have turned over about 40,000 documents since another federal judge ordered them to do so in 2002, but they have withheld an estimated 100,000 additional documents that may be relevant to the Judicial Watch-Sierra Club lawsuit, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Thursday.

It is not clear how many of those documents might be covered by Friedman’s order. He agreed with agency lawyers that, in some instances, certain documents were exempt from the FOIA request or may not exist at all.

Friedman disagreed, however, with their contention that records of communication between federal agencies and the task force were automatically exempt. He also ordered the release of records from the task force’s director, who at the time was a civil servant on loan to the task force from another government job.

Those records will probably prove revealing, Fitton said.

“This is a brushback to the government,” Fitton said. “I read it to mean we will finally get documents from the heart of the energy task force.”