(Appeared in The Sacramento Bee, The Miami Herald and The Monteray County Herald)
When Vice President Dick Cheney held secret meetings for his energy task force in the early days of President George W. Bush’s first term, he was excoriated by the left and even some on the right. Both Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club sued, but the Supreme Court found the proceedings were protected by executive privilege.
President Barack Obama came into office pledging to end such secrecy, saying, “The way to make government accountable is to make it transparent.”
On his own energy agenda, however, the president has been as opaque as Cheney, repeatedly holding closed-door meetings, anonymously courting lobbyists, dodging Freedom of Information Act requests, and ignoring subpoenas from Congress.
When Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison warned the Energy Department that the company’s financial problems were “starting to leak outside Solyndra,” Obama’s “accountable, transparent” administration helped cover up the failure – telling Solyndra executives to postpone any layoffs until after the 2010 elections. Even after the solar energy company went bankrupt and the FBI launched an investigation, the administration has refused congressional subpoenas to hand over documents about the Solyndra loan approval, calling the oversight an “unreasonable burden on the president’s ability to meet his constitutional duties.”
Solyndra is only part of a larger pattern of backroom deals designed to push the president’s environmental agenda. Take the negotiation of the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, for example. U.S. car manufacturers strongly opposed any change in the status quo, but the administration threatened to change the rules to allow states – led by California – to adopt their own standards, leading to a chaotic patchwork of balkanized state rules – a much worse fear for manufacturers.
Then California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols and Climate Czar Carol Browner organized a series of closed-door negotiations to get manufacturers on board. Nichols and Browner gave no updates to the press, held no group meetings, and wrote nothing down. “We put nothing in writing, ever,” Nichols later remarked, ostensibly to protect “everyone’s ability to talk freely.”
However, off-record negotiations are forbidden under the Federal Advisory Committee Act and Presidential Records Act, which require documentation, minutes and records to be kept for the public. So while the manufacturers gave in, no one knows, to quote Obama, “how the decision was made.”
They might have, for example, tied the agreement to the bailout approved just three weeks later. (EPA’s Lisa Heinzerling helped negotiate the bailout and was the primary negotiator for the CAFE standards increase.) In addition, the administration granted loans of more than $200 million to one manufacturer, including one authorized the day after the CAFE agreement was finalized.
Nichols noted that, “It was an astonishing thing that on something of this magnitude, there were no leaks.”
But if there were leaks, this administration has made clear how it treats leakers – as criminals. Obama’s Department of Justice, in conjunction with United Kingdom authorities, is pursuing a criminal investigation into the Climategate leaker(s). In December, DOJ sent a search-and-seize letter to the host of three blogs that released the Climategate emails, while U.K. police raided the home of a climate skeptic blogger.
The Climategate emails were already subject to Freedom of Information Act requests in both countries. The Obama administration has refined dodging FOIA requests into a science. U.N. climate data has been removed from FOIA documents even when it was received by U.S. bureaucrats acting in an official capacity. Agencies have created nongovernmental forums to discuss reports they don’t want to be subject to FOIA. Top officials have been repeatedly caught using “handles” – phrases that replace words which might be subjected to FOIA requests. The Energy Department’s Cathy Zoi, for instance, was referred to in emails only as “EE-1.”
Examples are endless. Administration officials have met with environmental lobbyists at a coffee shop near the White House to avoid standard record keeping. Only after Solyndra emails were subpoenaed did the public learn that administration officials met with Solyndra investor George Kaiser to discuss the Solyndra loan – the White House had claimed the opposite for months.
This lack of transparency is more than a pattern – it’s policy. President Obama is simply too committed to his green agenda to bother upholding the transparency he promised. Somewhere, Dick Cheney is smiling.