WASHINGTON - -Invoking an argument used by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has turned down a request from a watchdog group for a list of health industry executives who have visited the White House to discuss health care overhaul.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the Secret Service asking about visits from 18 executives representing health insurers, drugmakers, doctors and other players in the debate. The group is seeking the material as a gauge on the influence of those executives in crafting new health care policy.
The Secret Service sent a reply stating that documents revealing the frequency of such visits were considered presidential records exempt from public disclosure laws. The agency said it was advised by the Justice Department that the Secret Service was within its rights to withhold the information because of the "presidential communications privilege."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics said it would file suit against the Obama administration as early as today. The group has sued the administration over its failure to release details about visits from coal-industry executives.
A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said: "We are reviewing our policy on access to visitor logs and related litigation."
As a candidate, Barack Obama vowed that in devising a health care bill he would invite in TV cameras - specifically C-SPAN - so that Americans could have a window into negotiations that normally play out behind closed doors.
Having promised transparency, the administration should be willing to disclose who it is consulting in shaping health care policy, said an attorney for the citizens group.
In its letter requesting the records, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics asked about visits from Billy Tauzin, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans; William Weldon, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson; and J. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Association, among others.
PhRMA, which represents the nation's drug companies, said it took part in two meetings with senior White House officials in the Roosevelt Room.