Senate panel subpoenas White House staff in Enron investigation

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

AP Business WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- A Senate panel voted on party lines Wednesday to issue Congress' first subpoenas to the Bush White House, seeking information on staff contacts with Enron Corp. officials.

The vote was 9-8 to subpoena President Bush's executive office and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney to compel them to produce relevant documents by noon on June 3. The vote followed a two-hour debate that at times turned bitterly partisan. The material being sought also covers the Clinton administration, going back to January 1992.

The vote grew out of the Governmental Affairs Committee's investigation of Enron, which filed the biggest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history last year. The Houston-based company has been among Bush's biggest campaign contributors.

Some Republican senators accused Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the committee, of being politically motivated in requesting the subpoenas and unfairly giving the impression that wrongdoing in the Enron affair had occurred in the White House.

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, traveling with Bush to Germany on Air Force One, said the subpoenas were "unnecessary" because the White House was preparing to send over documents Wednesday.

"The White House has cooperated with Senator Lieberman," Fleischer told reporters. He said the White House's own review showed "no instance in which Enron approached anyone in the executive office of the president for financial help before they filed for bankruptcy."

Republicans noted that the White House had indicated it would deliver material to the panel on Wednesday and asked Lieberman to hold off the subpoenas.

"Are we doing this to attract the attention of the public?" Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., asked. "It makes me very suspicious about the motivation of asking for a subpoena."

Lieberman, chairman of the committee because Democrats control the Senate, told Cochran: "Your suspicions are unwarranted."

"The clear message I've gotten from the White House is that they're not going to give us what we want," Lieberman said. He noted he has been seeking the information since late March.

"I have finally concluded that we were being slow-walked ... at the least and stonewalled at worst," Lieberman said.

He stressed that he was not accusing anyone in the White House of wrongdoing but was seeking material needed in the committee's investigation.

The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, already has sued Cheney to force release of the names of Enron and other industry figures who met last year with his energy task force.

The Bush administration disclosed in January that former Enron chairman Kenneth 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 the company spiraled toward collapse last fall.

Lieberman, who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000 and is considering a run for president in 2004, had said Friday he would seek a subpoena unless the White House promised to provide all the material requested by the end of the month.

"I respectfully suggest that you reconsider and withdraw the threat of a subpoena until, at a minimum, you can review the information we intend to provide soon to the committee," White House counsel Alberto Gonzales told Lieberman in a letter Tuesday.

Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said Gonzales' letter contained no new proposal to resolve the impasse.

Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the committee, said it was premature and needlessly confrontational to issue subpoenas, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing by the White House having been raised.

Some of the material the subpoenas are seeking may be "at the core of the executive function," said Thompson. He said their issuance "appears to be an effort to force the president to claim executive privilege" and withhold the material.

The energy-trading company filed for bankruptcy court protection on Dec. 2. Investors nationwide were burned and thousands of Enron employees were stripped of nearly all their retirement assets as the company's stock plummeted.

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

Gonzales said Tuesday the panel would be acting "precipitously," and in a manner contrary to how Congress and the executive branch traditionally interact, if it issued a subpoena now.

In response to Lieberman's request, Gonzales on April 29 asked 204 White House staffers to fill out a questionnaire.

On Friday, Gonzales offered to give the questionnaire to all 2,000 or so executive office employees if Lieberman would withdraw his subpoena threat.

"We have yet to hear your response," Gonzales wrote.

"We already have taken numerous steps to gather information requested by the committee," he said. Gonzales said his staff was gathering and reviewing documents, e-mails and entry records of visitors to the White House, and was interviewing people with relevant information.

"We are preparing to respond soon to assist the committee's inquiry," he told Lieberman.

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