While we’re tripping down Memory Lane today … do you remember Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force? If not, quick refresher: Organized in January 2001 about ten minutes after Bush’s first inauguration, the task force was charged with writing the Bush Administration’s energy policy and met in secret. The Dick refused even to divulge the identity of task force members. In May 2001, the Bush Administration announced policies that appeared to be written by oil industry executives for the benefit of the oil industry. Which, of course, they were.
And now the Veep, softened up somewhat by the Libby indictment and the Bush Administration’s unpopularity, could be vulnerable to more charges.
A White House document shows that executives from big oil companies met with Vice President Cheney’s energy task force in 2001 — something long suspected by environmentalists but denied as recently as last week by industry officials testifying before Congress.
The document, obtained this week by The Washington Post, shows that officials from Exxon Mobil Corp., Conoco (before its merger with Phillips), Shell Oil Co. and BP America Inc. met in the White House complex with the Cheney aides who were developing a national energy policy, parts of which became law and parts of which are still being debated.
These guys lied to Congress? Isn’t that a crime? Oh, wait, they weren’t sworn in, were they? Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) denied a motion to swear them in and charged ahead with the proceedings. Makes you wonder if Stevens knew they were about to lie (ya think?). Still, they may be in trouble:
The executives were not under oath when they testified, so they are not vulnerable to charges of perjury; committee Democrats had protested the decision by Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) not to swear in the executives. But a person can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years for making “any materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation” to Congress.
We should all email our senators about this.
But the executives are not the first task force participants who lied to Congress. The first was the Big Dick himself.
Back in August 2003, John Dean wrote for Findlaw:
This month, the General Accounting Office (GAO) – the investigative and auditing arm of Congress – issued a report that contains some startling revelations. Though they are couched in very polite language, they are bombshells nonetheless.
The report – entitled “Energy Task Force: Process Used to Develop the National Energy Policy” – and its accompanying Chronology strongly imply that the Administration has, in effect, been paying off its heavy-hitting energy industry contributors. It also very strongly implies that Vice President Dick Cheney lied to Congress.
Right; the first thing on BushCo’s mind after the 2001 inauguration was to find ways to reward the loyal industrialists whose fundraising helped made Bush’s “victory” possible. And energy policy was a hot-button issue at the time because of the ongoing California energy crisis, a crisis that was in large part caused by Enron manipulation. And by some coincidence, George W. Bush flew to Washington for his inauguration in an Enron jet. But I digress. Let’s go back to John Dean:
The Background: How Cheney Stonewalled GAO
In a sense, this story begins during the close 2000 Presidential election, when energy industry special interests were big-dollar contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. (In 2004’s re-election campaign, they will doubtless be called upon once again.)
After he was elected – and very much beholden to those contributors – Bush put Cheney in charge of developing the National Energy Policy. To do so, Cheney convened an Energy Task Force. (Details about the Task Force can be found in my prior column.)
Cheney’s selection alone was ominous: He had headed Halliburton, just the kind of big-dollar Republican energy industry contributor that had helped Bush-Cheney win the election in the first place.
The Energy Task Force might have operated in absolute secrecy, were it not for GAO. GAO is a nonpartisan agency with statutory authority to investigate “all matters related to the receipt, disbursement, and use of public money,” so that it can judge the expenditures and effectiveness of public programs, and report to Congress on what it finds.
To fulfill its statutory responsibility, GAO sought documents from Vice-President Cheney relating to Energy Task Force expenditures. But in a literally unprecedented move, the White House said no.
On August 2, 2001, Vice President Cheney sent a letter – personally signed by him – to Congress demanding, in essence, that it get the Comptroller off his back. In the letter, he claimed that his staff had already provided “documents responsive to the Comptroller General’s inquiry concerning the costs associated with the [Energy task force’s] work.” As I will explain later, this turned out to be a lie.
In the end, GAO had to go to court to try to get the documents to which it plainly was entitled. On December 9, 2002, GAO lost in court – though, as I argued in a prior column, the decision was incorrect.
Then, on February 9, 2003, the Comptroller General announced GAO’s decision not to appeal. He said he feared that another adverse decision would cause the agency to lose even more power, more permanently. Several news accounts suggest that it was the Republican leadership of Congress that stopped the appeal.
There’s corruption inside of corruption inside of corruption in this story. It just doesn’t stop.
The GAO, thus stonewalled, issued a report that, says John Dean, revealed fibs on the part of The Dick. “The Report shows that Cheney’s claim to Congress, in the August 2, 2001 letter, that responsive documents were provided to GAO, was plainly false,” wrote Dean. From Dean’s account, it appears that the Veep sent a lot of bogus paper (including phone bills, columns of unidentified figures, and a pizza receipt) to the GAO instead of documents requested. And he got away with this.
Let’s go back to today’s WaPo article:
The task force’s activities attracted complaints from environmentalists, who said they were shut out of the task force discussions while corporate interests were present. The meetings were held in secret and the White House refused to release a list of participants. The task force was made up primarily of Cabinet-level officials. Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club unsuccessfully sued to obtain the records.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who posed the question about the task force, said he will ask the Justice Department today to investigate. “The White House went to great lengths to keep these meetings secret, and now oil executives may be lying to Congress about their role in the Cheney task force,” Lautenberg said.
Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, declined to comment on the document. She said that the courts have upheld “the constitutional right of the president and vice president to obtain information in confidentiality.”
I believe that is court, singular. U.S. District Judge John Bates dismissed the GAO’s suit in December 2002, and as exlained above the GAO decided not to appeal. John Dean and Rep. Henry Waxman, among others, believed strongly the opinion was incorrect.
The Congressman’s web site maintains lots of good background material on the Energy Task Force and the BushCo relationship with Big Oil.
John Dean was on Countdown with Keith Olbermann last week, explaining why he believed The Dick will resign after next year’s midterm elections, if not sooner. He explains his reasons in this Findlaw column on the Libby indictment. Dean argues that Patrick Fitzgerald is ultimately after Dick the Dick for violation of the Espionage Act, and Libby’s obstruction blocked charges against Cheney. After presenting the legal thinking behind this argument, Dean concludes:
It has been reported that Libby’s attorney tried to work out a plea deal. But Fitzgerald insisted on jail time, so Libby refused to make a deal. It appears that only Libby, in addition to Cheney, knows what Cheney knew, and when he knew, and why he knew, and what he did with his knowledge.
Fitzgerald has clearly thrown a stacked indictment at Libby, laying it on him as heavy as the law and propriety permits. He has taken one continuous false statement, out of several hours of interrogation, and made it into a five-count indictment. It appears he is trying to flip Libby – that is, to get him to testify against Cheney — and not without good reason. Cheney is the big fish in this case.
Will Libby flip? Unlikely. Neither Cheney nor Libby (I believe) will be so foolish as to crack a deal. And Libby probably (and no doubt correctly) assumes that Cheney – a former boss with whom he has a close relationship — will (at the right time and place) help Libby out, either with a pardon or financially, if necessary. Libby’s goal, meanwhile, will be to stall going to trial as long as possible, so as not to hurt Republicans’ showing in the 2006 elections.
So if Libby can take the heat for a time, he and his former boss (and friend) may get through this. But should Republicans lose control of the Senate (where they are blocking all oversight of this administration), I predict Cheney will resign “for health reasons.“
And now the Energy Task Force deal may be about to bite him, too. He can run, but he can’t hide.