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Judge chastises Energy Department, orders task force records release

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Mar 3, 2002    

Judge chastises Energy Department, orders task force records release

  • A federal judge asked “what in the world” the Energy Department’s Freedom of Information Office had been doing to respond to an important request for information on the Energy Task Force filed a year ago and ordered that records be released.

A “woefully tardy” Department of Energy operated at “a glacial pace” in providing its records on the Energy Task Force chaired by Vice President Richard Cheney, a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., said Feb 27 in a Freedom of Information Act decision.

Judge Gladys Kessler said the department must release by March 25 the bulk of the records on the task force sought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which first filed a FOI request for the records in April.

Kessler delivered a scathing opinion saying that she could not discern from the department’s FOI officer’s declaration “what in the world” the agency had been doing to respond to the request. The agency cited the existence of at least 11 other FOI requests for similar records to justify its failure to respond to NRDC, but had apparently not responded to those requests either, she wrote.

The NRDC decision is the first court ruling in several cases brought to discover what went on in the task force. Cheney claims executive privilege protects the activities of the task force and has rejected requests to him for information from Congress. Its investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, filed suit against him for records Feb. 22. NRDC’s request was directed to the Energy Department which is clearly subject to the FOI Act.

Kessler said the government “can offer no legal or practical excuse” for its excessive delay in providing the records. She said NRDC is legally entitled to records requested out of concerns about environmental implications of task force recommendations, the secrecy under which it operated, the participation of various non-governmental officials and whether there was compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

“The subject of energy policy, especially since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, is of enormous concern to consumers, to environmentalists, to the Congress and to industry,” the judge wrote. Quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court, she said the purpose of the FOI Act is to find out what our “government is up to” and that is precisely the purpose of the request by NRDC.

The judge said that if she adopted the disclosure schedule proposed by the Energy Department, records might well be delivered after they were needed in formulating national energy policy.

President Bush appointed Cheney in January 2001 to chair the Energy Task Force of several departmental and office heads. After meeting with various individuals and groups, it issued numerous recommendations in a report issued in May.

Questions about the influence of industry on the task force have persisted and have become more pressing as Congress probes the relationship of the now bankrupt energy giant Enron, whose officers were apparently among those advising the task force. The refusal of Cheney’s office to provide details about the outsiders to Congress led to filing of the GAO lawsuit.

Federal district judges have already heard two other lawsuits for information on the task force filed by Judicial Watch, a watchdog public interest group in Washington, D.C.

(NRDC v. Department of Energy; NRDC Counsel: Howard Crystal, Washington, D.C.) RD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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