Ochenski: Stonewalled action

Declaring war on the truth in a plague of secrecy



The plague of secrecy spreading from the White House to the Statehouse threatens to do more long-term harm to our freedom and health than any terrorist attack. Our politicians are acting as if Sept. 11 justifies this new form of “in secret” government. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The most high-profile case of secret meetings involves Vice President Dick Cheney, who chaired the National Energy Policy Development Group shortly after taking office. The product of that group was the Bush administration’s national energy policy that relaxes environmental standards, opens public lands, and provides tax breaks for exploration and development of traditional energy sources including coal, gas, and oil. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), justifiably concerned over the influence of the energy industry on the Bush administration, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) a month prior to the release of the energy plan to obtain basic information related to the plan’s development. “Our request for information about who helped formulate the Bush administration’s energy plan was straightforward and reasonable,” said Sharon Buccino, a senior NRDC attorney.

NRDC knew it had a public information battle on its hands when the DOE refused to waive the fees associated with the request, which is standard practice for non-profits. Then DOE proceeded to ignore the request for 11 months until, in December of 2001, NRDC filed suit in District Court to compel the release of the information. “There is no excuse for the Department of Energy’s bureaucratic stonewalling,” said Buccino. “We now have no choice but to press our legal rights until the agency is forced to allow the truth to come out. The big question is who was involved behind closed doors in developing the administration’s pro-industry energy plan. The public deserves to know what role industry lobbyists played in developing the task force’s recommendations before Congress sets America’s new energy path.”

But bigger dogs than NRDC are at Cheney’s heels. Both Congress and its investigative arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), requested the information. Cheney has steadfastly refused to disclose those with whom he met or the content of their discussions. He claims the GAO is overstepping its authority, and maintains that he and President Bush have the right to meet with people in secret to obtain “unvarnished” advice. This will be the first time in history that the GAO has had to sue another government agency to obtain information for Congress. Who will win? David M. Walker, the head of the GAO, says of Cheney’s assertions: “Talk is cheap.”

Closer to home, we have our own secrecy plague. In her recent “Report to the People,” Governor Martz took credit for her actions on the Libby asbestos tragedy that has killed hundreds and injured hundreds more. Unmentioned in that speech was any acknowledgement of Martz’s own secret meetings with W.R. Grace, the company responsible for the asbestos pollution, long before she deigned to meet with the people of Libby. Those secret meetings incensed Libby residents and created so much political heat for Martz that she eventually abandoned her initial position that W.R. Grace could do a better cleanup job than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Now, less than a week after using the Libby situation for political advantage, the governor is strangely silent on a secret meeting between the EPA and W.R. Grace & Co. officials in Washington, D.C. Once again, the secrecy has infuriated Libby’s citizens who are, after all, the victims in this affair. “I think it’s a dirty, underhanded thing to do, not only to us in Libby, but probably to everybody on the planet,” said Les Skramstad, the Libby asbestosis victim Martz invited to Helena and lauded in her speech. “If the meeting were public, at least it wouldn’t be so sneaky.” His words were echoed by citizen activist Gayla Benefield, who added, “I’m tired of these secret meetings deciding our fate. There are a lot of people in the United States whose lives could depend on what happens here in Libby.”

Both Scramstad and Benefield are right, since the EPA is considering the removal of Zonolite insulation from nearly 800 Libby homes because of asbestos contamination. The material was widely used not only in Libby, but throughout Montana and the nation. Is this a big deal? Let’s put it this way, last week stocks for asbestos-related companies rose significantly on a report that President Bush may be considering limiting liability for asbestos damages. While EPA officials discount the influence of W.R. Grace, they are nonetheless refusing to allow either citizens or the press into the meeting because, as Tom Scheckells, director of EPA’s regional response center said, he “didn’t think it would be a good idea.”

So here’s what it boils down to: We have government employees, in government agencies, paid for by public taxes, refusing to divulge whom they meet with or what they discuss. Adding insult to injury, they are banning both citizens and the press from attending these clandestine meetings with industry officials who have a huge economic stake in the outcomes. They’re in, we’re out.

Article II, section 9 of the Montana Constitution is very clear on this point: “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or observe the deliberations of public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

Having been under the corporate heel for a century, the good folks who wrote Montana’s Constitution knew that open government was good government. Montanans knew that a government operating in secret was a government that would not long stand. Governor Martz should tell President Bush “No more secret meetings!” in the best interests of Montana’s citizens, our health, and our future. And Bush should listen.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.


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