WASHINGTON - Lawyers for the General Accounting Office and Vice President Dick Cheney clashed yesterday before a federal judge over which branch's claim is paramount - the executive power to keep records confidential or the legislative right to investigate how public money is spent.
For the first time in the 81-year history of the agency, the comptroller general of the United States went to federal court yesterday to ask a judge to order a member of the executive branch to turn over records to Congress.
Lawyers for David M. Walker, the comptroller general and head of the General Accounting Office, and lawyers for the vice president argued over whether a federal judge can force Cheney to reveal the identities of industry executives who helped the administration develop a national energy policy last year.
Judge John D. Bates, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court in December 2001 by President Bush, did not decide the case from the bench yesterday.
A decision is not expected for several weeks. After that, whichever side loses is expected to appeal.
The politically charged lawsuit, Walker vs. Cheney, raises important constitutional questions, including whether the vice president can ignore a request for information from the GAO without the support of the president's decision to exercise executive privilege.
Carter G. Phillips, a lawyer for the GAO, argued that if Bates sided with the administration, the decision would have a "devastating" effect on "the GAO's ability to do its job."
"It would have an extraordinarily sweeping effect and would significantly halt the Congress' use of the General Accounting Office to conduct nonpartisan investigations," Phillips told Bates.
Phillips argued that a 22-year-old law allows the comptroller general to "investigate all matters related to the receipt, disbursement and use of public money."
Paul Clement, the principal deputy solicitor general, who represents Cheney, told the judge that the GAO lacks the legal standing to bring the case against the vice president.
"No court that I'm aware of has ever ordered the executive branch to turn over a document to a congressional agent," Clement said. "This is unprecedented."