The man who wants Cheney's Enron files
WASHINGTON — avid Walker is the kind of guy who rarely wears jeans and if he does, friends say, they're probably ironed. He likes his numbers precise - usually carried out to the fourth decimal place. One of his biggest heroes in life is Elmer B. Staats, the fifth comptroller general of the United States.
Mr. Walker, in other words, might not seem like the kind of person to carry out a rebellion against a sitting presidential administration. But, in fact, he is, of sorts.
As head of the normally obscure General Accounting Office, Walker is leading an effort to try to force Vice President Dick Cheney to turn over records of meetings with Enron and other corporate executives about federal energy policy.
The lawsuit the agency is expected to file against the vice president - the first ever by the GAO against a federal official for access to records - could end up influencing the level of openness in the White House for years to come.
As he sits behind his tidy desk in the GAO building, Walker doesn't seem perturbed - or puffed up - by his moment in history. He doesn't want to be on TV and spurns most interview requests. "I'm just doing my job," he says. "It's not something I was pleased at having to do or wanted to do, but something I needed to do to comply with our governing statute and to do my job in an objective and professional and nonpartisan fashion."
Walker's penchant, almost obsession, with being a straight shooter helps explain why his crusade against the government may not, in the end, be a surprising rebellion at all. On the carpet in his office is the phrase "accountability, integrity, reliability." He had the carpet made when he took over the job in 1998. Among the people he most admires in public life are Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy - neither mealy conformists. A prolific reader, he's currently on "Theodore Rex," a book about Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, and notes with pleasure that three biographies of the man who "said what he meant and meant what he said" just came out.
But his real affection when it comes to public figures lies with Staats, whom he calls "a legend in public service." In the Staats years (1966-1981), the GAO vastly expanded its role beyond the green-eye shade functions for which it had been established in 1921. Instead of just auditing federal agencies, GAO investigators began evaluating the performance of Great Society social programs. That's when the agency evolved into the main engine for congressional oversight of the executive branch - Congress's watchdog.
Now Walker wants to expand that role further. "Our scope includes everything the federal government is doing or thinking about doing anywhere in the world...," he said in a recent speech (all of which he writes himself.) The new GAO needs to be not just oversight, "but insight and foresight," he says.
Still, about 85 percent of the time of the 3,000-member GAO staff is spent running down requests of Congress or fulfilling statutory mandates, Walker says. One of those requests was for more information about Mr. Cheney's energy task force - and here is where all the trouble began.
The initial request came from two ranking Democrats in the House of Representatives, John Dingell of Michigan and Henry Waxman of California, both with a history of challenging executive-branch prerogatives. They wanted the names, dates, discussion topics, notes, and other materials presented at any meeting between task-force members and outside groups, especially energy firms like Enron.
It's GAO policy to treat requests from ranking members of the minority on par with those of a committee chair, Walker says. The request couldn't be refused.
For months, the April 19 request met with rebuffs or silence from the vice president's office. Walker scaled back his request: Instead of notes and materials, the GAO would settle for names, dates, and general topics of discussion. The new request was modest, compared with the transcripts, e-mails, and tapes of conversations that previous congressional investigations have accessed, experts say.
But the vice president - a veteran of congressional-executive branch skirmishes in four previous GOP administrations - was not budging. In a tough Aug. 2 letter, Cheney warned Senate and House leaders that the actions of their agent, the Comptroller General, "exceeded his lawful authority" and if allowed to continue, "would unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the executive branch."
He argues that turning over the records would undercut the free and open discussion of issues in the White House.
On Aug. 17, Walker sent a tough letter of his own, notifying the White House of statutory noncompliance within the executive branch. Only six such letters have been sent in the last 21 years. According to statute, the next step is the courts.
Then came the Sept. 11 attacks, which put off the day in court. Then the Enron debacle, which revived the issue of corporate influence in government. On Jan. 30, Walker wrote to Congress announcing his decision to file suit. No comptroller general has ever gone to court to force the executive branch to release documents it doesn't want to give up.
But Walker says he has no choice. "To allow someone to absolutely stonewall you is not something desirable, and if you don't take definite action, it can wind up proliferating," he says.
Before taking on his appointment as Comptroller General in 1998, Walker was a partner and global managing director of Arthur Andersen LLP's human capital services practice - a consulting arm of the firm, which he expanded dramatically.
He did not handle the Enron accounts, but analysts say the association with Enron's lead auditing firm could be seen as a reason to stand tough on this request.
"One can imagine what the controller general - a former partner in Arthur Anderson - would be opening himself up to, if he decided to go lightly on this issue," says Peter Shane, law professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
He's also opening himself, and the GAO, up to political reprisals. The office of comptroller general is one of the most secure political appointments in Washington: a 15 year term. But the job isn't bullet-proof. A former GAO head resigned after intense criticism, and the agency saw its budgets slashed in the 1990s.
Still, former associates say that's not likely to be a deciding factor in what is shaping up as a fight on principles for both the vice president and comptroller general. "He's a rigidly straight arrow, absolutely driven by the desire for public service," says James Klein, a longtime friend. "I'm confident that he's getting no joy from this scrutiny or having to go up against ... the administration."
"When he decides to do something and feels it's the right thing, he'll do it," adds a former coworker. "They had no idea who they were tackling when they tackled Dave Walker."