House Enron Stonewall?
t midweek, there was growing confidence among many Republicans that the White House had successfully answered many of the questions about the administration's actions during the collapse of Enron. Now, however, it appears some of that confidence might have been misplaced, after a number of less-than-reassuring statements by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
On Wednesday, Fleischer was asked, "Is there an informal review underway at the White House and at various agencies, to see if any other individuals talked to Enron executives, to make sure it is reported and out there and made public?" Fleischer said that the president is focused on two things: a criminal investigation of possible wrongdoing by Enron, and a review of the government regulatory policies that allowed the collapse to happen the way it did. Fleischer continued,
Later, when Fleischer was asked whether the administration would respond to congressional requests and subpoenas for all contacts between administration officials and Enron during the collapse, Fleischer answered, "I think that depends entirely on something that is just part conjecture and speculation about on something that has not happened and that is unknown So I don't know how to answer a question like that."
Finally, Fleischer was asked again whether anyone in the White House "is interested in who called Enron in this White House or in the government." Again, Fleischer said that unless someone has an allegation of wrongdoing, the White House will not give out information. "If you're asking if the White House is chronicling any contact with anybody in this administration and anybody at Enron over anything, I think that's such a broad request that it's characterized as a fishing expedition," Fleischer said.
The next day, Fleischer's message was much the same. "If Washington goes down the usual path of partisan fishing expeditions, I think they're going to lose the support of the public," Fleischer said. "The public wants to know that people here in this town are focused on the wrongdoing where the wrongdoing occurs, and not engaging in wasteful fishing expeditions." Much of the rest of the briefing was devoted to Fleischer's defense of Vice President Dick Cheney's decision not to release information about the outside contacts of Cheney's energy task force.
It seems clear from Fleischer's comments that even if it turns out there were more contacts between administration officials and Enron in Enron's last days, the White House will not reveal them unless reporters first come up with allegations of wrongdoing. Using that standard, it is difficult to understand why the White House last week released information about contacts between Enron and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, and a few others, since there were no allegations of wrongdoing surrounding those calls.
Perhaps ominously, Fleischer would not say that the White House would comply with congressional requests, even subpoenas, for information about administration contacts with Enron. It is possible that the White House is bluffing Fleischer's "they're going to lose the support of the public" line seems intended to scare investigators away from requesting information from the White House at a time when the president enjoys great popularity. But perhaps the administration is serious and in the mood for a confrontation with congressional investigating committees. If that happens, the White House will likely lose.
In addition, Fleischer's comments seem to suggest that there are indeed more contacts between Enron and administration officials than are publicly known. Last week, for example, he said, "I think it should surprise no one that people in the administration receive phone calls from people who are either in business or in unions. It happens every day." If there are more contacts, it is likely that they will ultimately come to light, and even if they do nothing to change the basic the-White-House-did-not-intervene-on-behalf-of-Enron storyline, the administration will face legitimate questions of why it did not reveal the information earlier. And any new revelation will inevitably lead to the question, "What else have you not told us about?"
The White House realizes that people with far more authority than reporters Democratic senators with the power of subpoena, for example might soon make inquires about the administration's Enron contacts. And it is possible those inquiries will not meet the White House standard that questioners must come up with allegations of wrongdoing before receiving a White House response. Whatever the case, the administration will have to come up with more complete answers than it has this week.