A government watchdog agency is losing patience with the White House's refusal to detail secret meetings that produced President Bush's national energy policy and is threatening to take steps that could land the tug of war in the courts.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has been pressing Vice President Dick Cheney's office to turn over information on the meetings for more than a month.
Cheney headed up the task force, which drafted Bush's plan to dramatically expand the nation's ability to produce energy. Two Democratic congressman asked the GAO to launch the investigation into Cheney's task force in April, suspecting Bush campaign supporters from the energy industry were getting extraordinary access.
While the White House claims to be cooperating, Cheney — through his attorney, David Addington — is refusing to release both the names of people who participated and the schedule of meetings. In letters sent May 16 and June 7, Addington has argued the GAO doesn't even have the right to ask for such information.
"It is a constitutional issue — the right to petition," said Cheney's spokeswoman, Juleanna Glover Weiss. "People should have the right and freedom to come to the government without having to release their names to the press."
Matter Could End Up in Court
The GAO adamantly disagrees and sent a letter to Cheney's counsel Friday justifying the agency's right to know. If Cheney does not turn over information, the GAO has threatened to send a "demand letter" — starting down the road to taking the vice president's office to court.
The law, GAO counsel Anthony Gamboa writes, authorizes the agency to "investigate all matters related to the receipt, disbursement, and use of public money."
"This broad grant of authority contains only one limitation: that the subject of the inquiry involve the use of public money," he continued. "It is beyond dispute that appropriated funds paid for the activities of the [Cheney task force] and thus that [its] activities are a matter related to the use of public money."
Glover said the task force would cooperate by releasing information on the costs of the task force. Indeed, a White House official confirms that documents regarding the direct and indirect costs of the Cheney energy task force — 77 pages in all — were sent to GAO late last week.
The official says no other documents were sent over because the White House maintains that GAO lacks the legal authority to request them. As the White House studies the latest GAO letter, the official acknowledged the dispute may ultimately be decided by the courts.
"This may end up in litigation," the official said. "We need to preserve the ability of the vice president and president to do their jobs."
This struggle between the White House and the GAO is reminiscent of the early days of the Clinton administration. Then, Republicans in Congress asked the GAO to investigate similar issues related to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's efforts to draft a national health-care policy behind closed doors.
The Clinton administration also was reluctant to name names of those who had attended the meetings, though the White House eventually gave in and released the names to the public.
ABCNEWS' Arianne DeVogue, Brian Hartman and Jackie Judd contributed to this report.