What exactly is the responsibility of our elected officials? When exactly should they conceal information? When must Congress act to bring concealed information to light? These are serious questions. Their answers, however, currently separate Vice President Dick Cheney from federal investigators.
That much became clear this week when the vice president stymied investigators from the General Accounting Office (GAO) in their attempts to retrieve notes on his meetings last year with Enron executives held while he was hammering out the energy plan.
Battle lines have been drawn. "It looks as if we'll be heading to court," U.S. Comptroller General David Walker said in response to Cheney's refusal to hand over the information.
Nonetheless, Cheney refuses to budge, setting the stage for a heavyweight match between himself and Congress that could very well reverse the 100-year-old trend of intense government scrutiny of big business. This standoff could become the most dynamic national issue outside of the war on terrorism.
A brief recap: Enron has been hard at work over the last decade stuffing Benjamins in the pockets of any elected official who might be able to aid them in any number of corporate objectives ranging from energy deregulation to shielding its bogus accounting practices from scrutiny.
Then, one day, something happened on the way to the bank - Enron went boom. And with it, the life savings, college funds, mortgage payments, life, love and security of hundreds of thousands of Enron employees dissolved in a bleak instant.
Now GAO is investigating Enron's attempts to cuddle up to the veep. They want Cheney's notes.
Any honorable, elected representative would have no problem turning them over. Doing so would demonstrate in no uncertain terms that he was beholden to the public that elected him, not to corporate interests.
Cheney, by contrast, has opted to stick his head in the sand. Likely, he figures that a federal investigation won't play well so long as the country wants its elected officials undistracted from the war on terrorism. Likely, he figures to hide out for a while in the shadow of Bush's swelling approval rating, emerging only periodically to attack GAO's investigation as a "partisan fishing expedition." (The White House gives the game away when they attack Cheney's accusers, rather than defend him.)
When pressed, Cheney maintains that it is his executive privilege to withhold such information from the public.
With heaps of self-righteousness, he says that the secret dealings between him and the conglomerates that subsidize our bureaucracy ought to remain shrouded in secrecy. He seeks the high road by saying that peeking into the private meetings of cabinet members undermines the sanctity of the White House and the nation's general prosperity.
In effect, he says, "Close your eyes and trust me."
That sound you hear is thousands of hardworking ex-Enron employees retching.
There are real ironies in Cheney's defense. Over the last decade, The Republican Party exerted quite a bit of time and energy demanding that the Clintons' make public their records on everything from Whitewater, Filegate and Travelgate to Hillary's secret meetings while chairing the health-care task force.
Shrouding such information in secrecy, the Republicans maintained, was a betrayal of a democratic official's primary responsibility as a representative of the people.
They were correct.
But now the real betrayal of honor, faith and law comes from within Bush's own cabinet.
One is reminded of French foreign minister Tallyrand's meditation on the Bourbon kings, "They forget nothing. They learn nothing."
Sadly, several key Republicans continue to dismiss the Enron scandal. "Companies come and companies go," sniffed Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
Come and go?
The only words out of O'Neill's mouth should be about a government bailout for the families that Enron swindled.
I have been a staunch supporter of this administration and am a third-generation Republican. But, on this issue, I must take a moral stand. Plainly, it is unconscionable to squinch one's eyes at the fact that Enron deceived its employees and bilked them out of their life savings, possibly with an assist from high-level government officials.
Meanwhile, ABC's "World News Tonight" reports that Enron officials may still be shredding financial documents. "The shredding was going on until I left," said former employee Maureen Castaneda, who parted ways with the company two weeks ago. "I have no idea if it continues."
Roughly 100 years ago, while addressing Congress, Teddy Roosevelt said that public interest demands that Congress should have the right to scrutinize big business. At the time, he sought to peel back the cover of darkness that shrouded food manufacturers from strict public scrutiny.
Dick Cheney ought to take a cue from history and make public the nature and extent of his dealings with corporate lobbyists. The alternative is to reverse a 100-year trend of corporate accountability and government scrutiny, at the expense of the very citizens the government is entrusted to protect.