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About Those White House Meeting 

by Robert Herold

The Natural Resources and Defense Fund has successfully invoked the Freedom of Information Act to obtain some particulars about Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. They will secure that information from the Department of Energy - and not from an uncooperative White House.

Cheney and President Bush - as a matter of principle, they say -- continue to withhold records of the private meetings they held with energy executives from the General Accounting Office. They argue that privacy is essential if the administration is to conduct business. They claim that the GAO violates the spirit of the separation of powers. They wrap themselves in their office and ask the public to believe that their primary concern is the integrity of the presidency.

All cynicism aside, they are making the mistake of considering principle in a vacuum. Context matters. And in the case of the president's energy proposal (especially in light of the Enron disaster), context matters a lot. After all, we aren't talking about a few good ol' boys from Texas simply chewing the fat. If that were all that occurred, neither the GAO nor the Natural Resources and Defense Fund would be in court. We are talking not about private conversations but about an official task force.

Conservative columnist David Brooks believes that it is sufficient to judge the proposal on its merits. He doesn't see why the public needs to know what evil may have lurked in the hearts of the men who put the proposal together. But what if those motivations, once understood, reveal much about this administration's intentions and biases? The effective impact of the Enron scandal, both its scope and its depth, can only be known if the public understands what was going on behind those closed doors - or at least knows who talked to whom. Congressional hearings aren't necessarily the ultimate watchdogs in this matter--but public opinion could be.

What's known is that Bush's energy proposal was, predictably, slanted. His Vice President's proposal extended favors to the very same people who had been called in to lend advice.

These were closed meetings between the Vice President and selected Friends-of-Dick from the supply side of the energy world, some of whom now appear to be central to the biggest corporate meltdown in U.S. history. And the public doesn't need to know? And context doesn't matter?

The president and Vice President apparently do not recognize the suspicions lingering across the country. We in the Northwest have watched as natural gas and electric costs have spun out of control. We want to know if the causes of our misery follow a path leading from Avista through deregulation into Texas (possibly with an overnight stay with Enron), and from there right into the White House.

Our situation is replete with the stuff of suspicion. First Avista hires Tom Mathews, a hotshot Texan. About the same time, a local gas and power company in Houston morphs into Enron, then begins plowing big bucks toward candidates and lobbying for more deregulation. Then, guess what happens? Our little local gas-and-power company mutates into Avista.

Enron? Avista? Two zippy names for the brave new world of deregulation?

But the hotshot Texan makes a mess of things at Avista. He's fired, but he heads back to Texas with major buckaroos in his pocket as payment for his failure. (Jeff Skilling would surely understand.) And, oh yes, Mathew's good friend and fellow deregulation advocate, Marc Racicot, the governor from nearby Montana, becomes a major player in the Bush juggernaut down in Florida, though he turns down Bush's offer to become Attorney General because, in his words, he needs to make some money. Now an ex-governor, he too makes his way through Texas and Enron before landing a job as the head honcho of the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, our electric rates continue to leap off the charts. But then, context doesn't matter.

We can't pass off our plight as a lack of supply. For example, my mother-in-law lives in Ohio. She heats with natural gas and hasn't experienced any price increases. What's so unique about Avista? The effects of deregulation, perhaps? Bad management that the public is supposed to salvage? Or what?

When we consider the issue in context, we can only conclude that principle gots little er nuthin' to do with it. Is there any doubt that Bush and Cheney are stonewalling, not out of principle, but out of a concern that they will suffer further political embarrassment?

Nor is this the first time the president has resorted to denials and evasions. Why else would he refuse to release formerly classified Iran-Contra documents? Because they're likely to demonstrate his father's involvement in the scandal?

Oh, that's right, we forgot. He's doing it to protect the integrity of the office.

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