A congressional investigative agency, the General Accounting Office, has sued vice president Dick Cheney in a move aimed at forcing the release of records of meetings between the president’s energy task force and business executives. The task force, chaired by Cheney, had dealings with executives of most large US energy companies, including Kenneth Lay, former chairman of Enron, a significant financial contributor to Bush’s presidential campaign. This move is the latest by the GAO to try to settle the question of whether or not these discussions amounted to inappropriate influence by interested energy industry figures.

The case is unprecedented, marking the first time the GAO has gone to court to force an executive-branch official or agency to reveal documents. It is likely to lead to a major battle between the executive and the legislature on a scale not seen since Watergate. President Bush has let it be known that he intends to fight the action to the bitter end.

No trial date has been set, and it is possible that the parties may negotiate their way out of the situation, although the administration seems unwilling to back down in any way. The White House argues that the activities of the task force are outside the GAO’s mandate to scrutinise and oversee government agencies. President Bush argues additionally that this kind of disclosure would severely hamper his ability to conduct private policy deliberations and would erode the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.

Congressional democrats say that the White House is trying to hide the influence of energy industry officials, particularly those employed by Enron. Clashes on this issue between the GAO and the White House date back to last summer, before Enron’s collapse.

But it isn’t looking good for the White House. A private action to force the Energy Dept to release the names of executives who were consulted by the task force has succeeded. This was followed by a report in the New York Times, from a separate source, that 18 of the energy industry’s top 25 financial contributors to the Republicans advised Cheney’s task force.