In a reasonable universe this would be a major scandal:
The Bush administration illegally withheld data from Congress on the cost of the new Medicare law, and as a penalty, the former head of the Medicare agency, Thomas A. Scully, should repay seven months of his salary to the government, federal investigators said Tuesday.
The investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said Mr. Scully had threatened to fire the chief Medicare actuary, in violation of an explicit provision of federal appropriations law.
Accordingly, they said, federal money could not be used to pay Mr. Scully’s salary after he began making the threats to the actuary in May 2003.
The conclusion came in a formal legal opinion by the accountability office, an investigative arm of Congress formerly known as the General Accounting Office. The agency applied its interpretation of the law to factual findings previously made by the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Bush administration did not quarrel with those facts, but said on Tuesday that it was unconstitutional for Congress to compel the disclosure of data over objections from the executive branch.
The White House had no immediate comment. William A. Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the department would not try to recover the money because Mr. Scully had “acted within his legal authority.”
But Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, cited the report as evidence that “the Bush administration broke the law by covering up the true cost of their phony Medicare bill.”
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, one of 18 Democratic senators who requested the legal opinion, said the administration had purposely hidden information about “its flawed Medicare plan,” and he asserted, “This was a corruption of the process at the highest levels.”
The law under which Mr. Scully could be penalized says that no federal money can be used to pay the salary of any federal employee who “prohibits or prevents, or attempts or threatens to prohibit or prevent, any other officer or employee of the federal government” from communicating with Congress.
The Government Accountability Office said the Department of Health and Human Services should try to recover the money, just as it would try to secure payment of any debt owed to the department.
The department itself found that Mr. Scully had threatened to dismiss the actuary if he provided information and estimates sought by Congress last year in the heat of debate over Medicare.
But lawyers at the health department and the Justice Department said the law requiring the disclosure of information to Congress violated “executive privilege,” the constitutional separation of powers and the president’s right to control communications with Congress.
The Government Accountability Office rejected that argument. No court has ever held the law unconstitutional, it said, and the cost estimates were neither classified nor privileged. Indeed, it said, Mr. Scully’s threats to the actuary were “a prime example of what Congress was attempting to prohibit” when it outlawed “gag rules.”
Anthony H. Gamboa, general counsel of the Government Accountability Office, said the administration was “prohibited from paying Mr. Scully’s salary after he barred Mr. Foster from communicating with Congress.” The money appropriated by Congress was simply “unavailable for the payment of his salary,” Mr. Gamboa wrote.