Washington The General Accounting Office sued Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday in unprecedented legal action seeking lists of executives from Enron and other energy companies who met last year with President Bush's energy task force.
The White House, which has resisted the congressional demands, said it would "defend our principles."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, marked the first time in the congressional agency's 81-year history that it had resorted to asking a federal judge to force a president or vice president or their aides to release documents.
The lawsuit also seeks records of the subjects discussed by the task force, which Cheney chaired.
The GAO contends Cheney's refusal to provide the information violates laws giving it broad authority "for evaluating programs and activities of the United States government" and requiring agencies to provide information about their "duties, powers, activities, organization and financial transactions."
Comptroller General David Walker, the head of the GAO, requested the information from Cheney last April after House Democrats first asked him to obtain it.
"We take this step reluctantly," Walker said of the lawsuit. "Nevertheless, given GAO's responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice. Now that the matter has been submitted to the judicial branch, we are hopeful that the litigation will be resolved expeditiously."
That is unlikely. White House officials said Thursday that, if necessary, they were willing to fight the matter as high as the Supreme Court.
Bush has refused to hand over the documents, saying it would encroach on his ability to get candid views from people outside the government.
"These are important constitutional principles that we've been ready to fight for since they first threatened to file the lawsuit," White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said Friday. "We're ready to defend our principles."
The GAO names only Cheney as a defendant, both as vice president and as chairman of the National Energy Policy Development Group that drafted the energy proposals that Bush put forth last April.
The GAO said oversight of energy policy and investigation of Enron, the Houston-based energy conglomerate that collapsed in December, were "important institutional prerogatives" of Congress. Enron was the largest single corporate contributor to Bush's political career.
The congressional agency argues in its lawsuit that its statutory power gives it broad powers to investigate government programs and demand almost all government documents to help Congress.
"It's remarkable and sad that the administration has forced GAO to take this unprecedented action," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., one of the first lawmakers to seek the records, said Friday. "Revealing the names of lobbyists and campaign contributors may be unpleasant to the vice president, but, as previous administrations have learned, avoiding embarrassment isn't a constitutional protection."
Cheney's office said last month that Enron representatives met six times with Cheney or his aides concerning energy policy, including a discussion in mid-October just before the company's collapse. It also said that former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay met once with Cheney.
The lawsuit sets up an unprecedented fight over just how far GAO as a congressional investigating agency can reach into the executive branch. It asks a federal judge to issue an injunction requiring Cheney to reveal who attended the energy tax force meetings, whom the task force met with to develop its energy recommendations, how it determined whom to invite and how much it cost to come up with the policy.
A senior White House official said the administration will challenge GAO's right to the information with a claim that the law specifies that the agency's purpose is to investigate the expenditure and disbursement of public money.