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US energy policy data requested by judge

Cheney task force eyed by watchdog groups

WASHINGTON -- The government must release more documents related to the White House task force that Vice President Dick Cheney convened in private to develop a national energy policy, a federal judge says.

Environmental and government watchdog groups have been seeking records and other information as part of an inquiry into whether energy executives and lobbyists helped draft a policy friendly to their industries early in President Bush's first year in office.

The administration maintains that only government employees were members of the task force, which disbanded in 2001, and has fought release of some documents on grounds that they were part of internal discussions.

The private group Judicial Watch has alleged that former Enron chairman Ken Lay and lobbyists Mark Racicot, Haley Barbour, and Thomas Kuhn may have participated.

The order Wednesday from US District Judge Paul Friedman covers material that the Energy Department, Interior Department, and other federal agencies had refused to produce since a similar federal court ruling two years ago.

Some documents released so far show energy executives met with high-level Energy Department officials, but the records Friedman ordered released "could be the most telling," said Sharon Buccino, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's kind of the top of the food chain."

A meeting with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is significant, Buccino said, "but getting in to meet with Vice President Cheney and the staff of the task force is going to get folks even further in terms of influencing what comes out."

Friedman's order could cover some material that is the subject of a separate lawsuit now before the Supreme Court. That case also involves documents about the inner workings of Cheney's energy task force.

Cheney himself was ordered to produce some documents and he appealed that part of the dispute to the high court, which will hear arguments this month.

The Cheney case was the subject of recent headlines because of a hunting trip Cheney took with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weeks after the court had agreed to hear Cheney's appeal. Scalia rebuffed a request that he step aside, saying he had no conflict of interest.

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