WASHINGTON (June 17, 2005) -- In a mixed ruling today, a federal appellate court upheld a lower court decision that the Bush administration improperly withheld documents related to fast-tracking federal energy projects. However, the court also ruled that the administration could continue to withhold the records of key staffers of Vice President Cheney's energy task force.
The D.C. Court of Appeals found that Ronald Montagna, a Bureau of Land Management official, remained an employee of the Interior Department while serving on the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining. As a result, the court ordered the agency to search and publicly disclose records related to Mr. Montagna's work on that task force. The streamlining task force has aggressively opened public lands to energy development at the expense of environmental protection and public participation, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).
Also in today's decision, the court rebuffed NRDC's efforts to obtain additional documents related to Vice President Cheney's secret energy task force. Specifically, the court denied public access to the records of key officials, including Andrew Lundquist, who remained employed by the Department of Energy (DOE) while staffing the task force. The court found that Lundquist and the others were employees of DOE in name only. Therefore, their records were not subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
"NRDC's court victories have already produced enough evidence to show that industry all but held the pen in crafting the Bush administration's polluter-friendly energy policy," said NRDC Senior Attorney Sharon Buccino. "But because Mr. Lundquist ran the secret task force, his records no doubt would have produced the most revealing information yet about the role of industry lobbyists."
In April 2001, NRDC asked DOE for basic information about its role in the Cheney task force, officially called the National Energy Policy Development Group, which was commissioned by President Bush in January 2001. DOE was a leading agency working with the task force to develop the president's policy. In February 2002, in a stinging condemnation of DOE's refusal to obey the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a federal district court ordered the agency to release secret documents related to Vice President Cheney's energy task force.
In her opinion, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler described DOE as "woefully tardy," and observed that the agency had "no legal, or practical, justification for working at a glacial pace" to fulfill NRDC's request, noting that "the material which [NRDC] seeks is of extraordinary public interest." Judge Kessler directed the government to turn over the documents by March 25, 2002. After reviewing more than 12,000 pages of records related to the task force, NRDC made public -- for the first time -- information confirming that energy industry lobbyists helped craft the administration's national energy policy.
That legal victory was tempered by the administration's refusal to release other likely damning information -- specifically, the records of five key task force staffers including Andrew Lundquist, the panel's executive director. Lundquist is a former top aide to Republican Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens of Alaska. After the task force disbanded in September 2001, Lundquist served as an advisor on energy policy to Vice President Cheney. He left the White House in March 2002 to start his own consulting firm in Washington.
Because Lundquist and the others served on the task force as DOE employees, NRDC argued that their records were subject to FOIA disclosure. However, the agency failed to turn over those additional records, prompting NRDC's continued legal action. In March 2004, federal district Judge Paul Friedman ruled in NRDC's favor and ordered DOE to release the records. The U.S. Court of Appeals has now reversed part of that decision.