WASHINGTON -- A judge on Thursday rebuffed a Bush administration effort to kill lawsuits aimed at revealing the inner workings of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he will allow the private groups Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club to take the first step in delving into the operations of the task force.
Run by Cabinet heads, the Cheney panel directed federal agencies in writing a plan last year that focused on expanding energy production -- a position favored by the industry.
Sullivan said he may require that any material from the Cheney panel be turned over to him instead of to the private groups until he decides whether there is a legal basis for the case to proceed.
The administration maintains that only government employees were members of the task force, which disbanded last year. But the conservative group Judicial Watch alleges that former Enron chairman Ken Lay and lobbyists Mark Racicot, Haley Barbour and Thomas Kuhn were members.
Racicot is now Republican National Committee chairman. The ex-Enron chairman and the three current and former lobbyists are defendants in the Judicial Watch case, with which the Sierra Club lawsuit has been combined.
Outside the courtroom, Alex Levinson of the Sierra Club said that "if Enron wrote part of the White House's energy policy, we want to know about it." The White House has acknowledged half a dozen meetings between Enron and Cheney or his aides on the task force.
Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch said the administration's strategy is to "run out the clock" and to fight disclosing the people the task force met with until the public has moved onto other issues.
The Cheney plan, which favors oil and gas drilling on public land and rejuvenating nuclear power, provided the starting point for wide-ranging energy legislation currently before Congress.
In several tense exchanges with the judge during a three-hour hearing, Justice Department lawyer Shannen Coffin insisted Sullivan had ample basis to throw out the lawsuits. Coffin cited President Bush's written directive saying he was creating the Cheney task force in order to advise him on national energy policy.
Coffin said top aides are entitled to provide advice on a confidential basis to the president. Coffin also said the lawsuits are moot because the task force no longer exists.
Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club maintain that Cheney's panel is subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which is designed to open government panels in the executive branch to public scrutiny. The idea behind the law is that public disclosure would counteract lobbying by special interests.
The judge did knock out one basis for the lawsuits against Cheney and the task force. But the question of whether Cheney and the task force were subject to the advisory committee act remains.