Sen. Lieberman threatens White House with subpoena on Enron

Sunday, May 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joseph Lieberman may try to subpoena information from the White House about staff contacts with Enron officials, but the top White House lawyer says he believes an agreement can be reached.

Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said Friday he will ask the panel to authorize a subpoena unless White House officials promise to provide the material by the end of the month.

It would be the first subpoena to the Bush White House, although the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, has sued Vice President Dick Cheney to force release of names of Enron and other industry figures who met last year with his energy task force.

White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales said the administration will continue to cooperate with the Senate committee's inquiry. He told reporters he remains optimistic that a subpoena can be avoided.

Still, he said, the White House cannot commit to providing everything the panel is seeking because it doesn't fully understand the scope and details of its request.

About 2,000 people work in President Bush's executive office, most without jobs that would involve contact with Enron executives, Gonzales said.

"If Ken Lay's going to call the White House, he's going to call someone pretty senior," he said, referring to the former Enron Corp. chairman, one of Bush's biggest campaign contributors.

In response to Lieberman's request, Gonzales asked 204 White House staffers April 29 to complete questionnaires.

Push and pull

Lieberman has been in a push-and-pull with the White House since requesting the information in late March as part of the panel's Enron investigation.

In a letter to Gonzales, Lieberman wrote, "More than seven weeks have passed, ... and the committee has received virtually no information from you." The only material provided were copies of letters responding to other congressional inquiries and a transcript of a Bush press conference, he said.

Lieberman said he would ask his committee on Wednesday to vote on authorizing a subpoena unless Gonzales assures the panel he will take steps to broaden the search for information and to provide the material by the end of May.

Gonzales said he was surprised and disappointed by Lieberman's subpoena threat.

"We feel that we have been responsive. We are working to be responsive," he said at the White House. He said his office would be "as cooperative as we feel we can be."

The administration disclosed in January that Lay made a series of telephone calls to members of the Bush Cabinet, including Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, as Enron spiraled toward collapse last fall.

The energy-trading company entered the biggest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history on Dec. 2.

The Senate panel has been looking into why federal regulators did not raise warning flags about Enron's questionable business practices and intervene.

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