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Judge Says White House Must Release Visitor Logs for Nine Religious Right Leaders

A federal judge on Monday ordered the Bush administration to release information about when nine prominent religious conservatives visited the White House, rejecting arguments by the administration the records should be kept secret to protect confidentiality of presidential and vice presidential deliberations.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-profit advocacy group, sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Freedom of Information Act for access to visitor logs for Religious Right leaders, saying the information is in public interest concerning “the influences to which the Bush administration is subject.”

The lawsuit sought information about visits to the White House or residence of Vice President Dick Cheney by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, American Values head Gary Bauer, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, Traditional Values Coalition president Louis Sheldon and his daughter Andrea Lafferty, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, American Family Association founder Donald Wildmon and Southern Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, who died this spring.

White House visitor logs played a key role in the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration, but the Bush White House quietly changed the rules in an agreement with the Secret Service amid the Jack Abramoff scandal in 2006 that records identifying visitors to the White House belong to the executive branch and are not subject to public disclosure.

In Monday’s ruling, District of Columbia District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth rejected the “memorandum of understanding” and ordered the Secret Service to produce the requested records within 20 days.

“CREW is pleased that the judge saw through the White House’s transparent attempts to hide public documents from the American people,” Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director said. “We look forward to sharing the documents we obtain through this lawsuit.”

“From its first days, this administration has tried to keep the American public in the dark about what goes on behind closed White House doors,” CREW said. “Through a secret agreement and a letter from Vice President Cheney’s counsel, the administration had attempted to permanently hide from view records related to those who visit the White House and the vice president’s residence. Today, a federal judge has cracked open those doors by holding that these are Secret Service records subject to public disclosure.”

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, applauded the decision.

“The American public has the right to know how often and when Christian Right leaders were in the White House, influencing policy and receiving talking points from the Bush officials,” Parham said. “Since both the Bush administration and the Christian Right prefer to operate in darkness and secrecy, the sunshine of judicial ruling is necessitated. Only with transparency and clarity will we really know the degree of entanglement of church and state intended to advance a wrongful theological agenda.”

“It is certainly in the public good for the White House to immediately comply,” Parham said. “I hope the White House will reply to the spirit of CREW’s request, disclosing all Christian Right leaders who traipsed across the White House carpet.”

In a separate case, CREW sought an order declaring illegal a policy that the Secret Service destroys its copies of the logs after turning them over to the White House. Judge Lamberth said he lacked the authority to make such a ruling, but because the logs are Secret Service records, they cannot be destroyed without permission from the National Archives.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.