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Challenging administration’s secrecy

Until last week, the Bush administration, under cover of the ill-defined and open-ended war on terrorism, was engaged in a reckless flirtation with secrecy and special interests, shutting out the public from areas of government business that should be open to scrutiny. But two federal court judges and a whistleblower in the Environmental Protection Agency have begun to force the doors open again.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the Congress, has received headlines for suing the administration to gain access to records of Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with energy lobbyists to draw up the administration’s energy plan. That suit is still pending.

It is, however, only one of three suits aimed at gaining access to the increasingly secretive Bush administration.

Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan, saying, “I assume the government is stalling,” ordered the Justice Department to released documents to Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that also gave the Clinton administration fits over issues of access. The documents reportedly will help to show what influence Enron executives and other oil interests had over the administration’s energy policy.

In another case, Judge Gladys Kessler described the administration as “woefully tardy” in handing over documents to the Natural Resources Defense Council that also would provide information about who influenced the Bush energy plans.

It is notable that Kessler drew a connection between oil and the terrorist attacks, saying, “The subject of energy policy, especially since the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, is of enormous concern.”

In a third case, Judge Paul Friedman described the government’s action as “gamesmanship” and refused to dismiss yet another Judicial Watch suit against Cheney.

As the administration was getting pressure from the courts to open the books on its dealings with special interest groups, a longtime official at the Environmental Protection Agency took the unusual step of resigning, claiming the agency’s work was being compromised by White House meetings with power companies intent on undermining enforcement of clean air standards.

As we were going to press, hearings were about to get underway to look into claims made by Eric Schaeffer, director of the office of regulatory enforcement, in a resignation letter to his boss, EPA Administrator Christine Whitman.

Schaeffer expressed his “frustration” over “a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce.”

According to the letter from Schaeffer, who has 12 years of experience with the agency, the EPA has filed lawsuits “against nine power companies for expanding their plants without obtaining New Source Review permits and the up-to-date pollution controls required by law. The companies named in our lawsuits emit an incredible 5.0 million tons of sulfur dioxide every year (a quarter of the emissions in the entire country) as well as 2 million tons of nitrogen oxide.”

That amount of pollution has significant implications for public health. The agency estimates that 7 million tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are responsible for “more than 10,800 premature deaths; at least 5,400 incidents of chronic bronchitis; more than 5,100 hospital emergency visits; and over 1.5 million lost work days. Add to that severe damage to our natural resources, as acid rain attacks soils and plants and deposits nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay and other critical bodies of water,” Schaeffer wrote.

The EPA, through legal action, was on the verge of gaining significant concessions from the companies involved when the Bush administration imposed a 90-day period for review of the law. That has turned into a nine-month period, with no end in sight. At the same time, the administration is drafting alternative proposals -- which have been leaked to the energy industry -- that would weaken the Clean Air Act. In effect, the administration is undermining the EPA’s efforts. Energy companies are stalling. Two companies, Cinergy and Vepco, “have refused to sign the consent decrees they agreed to 15 months ago, hedging their bets while waiting for the administration’s Clean Air Act reform proposals,” wrote Schaeffer. Other companies, he said, have stopped negotiating.

Perhaps the Senate hearings prompted by Schaeffer’s letter will shed some light and bring much needed attention on the administration’s sad environmental record.

The wider problem, of which the EPA-White House dispute is only a part, is the Bush administration’s fondness for secrecy and its coziness with industry to the exclusion of other interests, often to the detriment of the public good.

In addition to Cheney’s secret meetings, the cumulative record raises reason for concern:

  • The president has changed the Presidential Records Act so that a sitting president can now keep secret the papers of a previous administration.
  • Attorney General John Ashcroft released a memo telling agencies that if they decided to withhold records sought under the Freedom of Information Act, they could “be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions.”
  • The Justice Department refused to reveal the names of hundreds of Middle East immigrants swept up after the Sept. 11 attacks.
  • Scientific documents previously available to the public are being withdrawn for national security reasons.
  • Bush initiated a shadow government made up of senior civil servants. They were sequestered at an unknown location following the Sept. 11 attacks. The president never informed anyone on Capitol Hill. Legislators learned of the shadow government from newspaper reports.

Politicians are elected to conduct the people’s business, not for their own purposes or to smooth the way for big business. Those elected to advance the common good should be pushing the limits of openness, not taking every opportunity to close off access and hide information.

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002