The Bush administration is dismissing allegations that Vice President Dick Cheney took part in fraudulent accounting practices during his time as head of a Texas oil firm. President Bush continues calling for tougher penalties against corporate corruption.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissed allegations of fraud during the vice president's time as chief of the Halliburton oil services company. He said, "The suit is without merit, and, as you indicate, this is a suit filed vis-a-vis Halliburton."
Mr. Fleischer added that any other questions on the matter should be directed to Halliburton, where a statement from the firm's chief financial officer called the allegations "untrue, unsupported, and unfounded."
The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating accounting practices at Halliburton during the time when Mr. Cheney lead the firm from 1995 to 2000.
Mr. Fleischer dismissed suggestions that political pressure might influence the investigation, saying the SEC will pursue it "wherever it leads."
The conservative public interest group Judicial Watch has filed a shareholders' lawsuit alleging that the vice president and other executives overstated profits by more than $400 million to deceive investors.
President Bush called Tuesday for longer prison terms for executives convicted of fraud and for a new federal task force to coordinate investigations into corporate misconduct.
In a speech on Wall Street, Mr. Bush called for a "new ethic" of business responsibility to restore investor confidence after a series of American business scandals that have left thousands of workers without retirement savings.
"When abuses like this begin to surface in the corporate world," said the president, "it is time to reaffirm the basic principles and rules that make capitalism work - truthful books and honest people and well-enforced laws against fraud and corruption."
Democrats say the president's plan does not go far enough. They want an independent board to regulate corporate accounting and broader restrictions on accountants also serving as corporate consultants.
Mr. Fleischer emphasized that the president believes Democratic legislation in the Senate is "very close" to a Republican bill that has already passed the House of Representatives. He says Mr. Bush wants both parties to work quickly to settle the remaining differences in a single bill.
The president met with Congressional leaders to discuss the legislation. Following the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Republican Trent Lott said Mr. Bush is moving closer toward the Democratic legislation sponsored by Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes.
"The president said that he though there were a lot of good features in Sarbanes," noted Mr. Sarbanes. "That he does not have big problems with it. There are some areas where there is some concern. There are some other areas, which he would like to strengthen. But basically he talked positive about the Sarbanes bill. But in the broader sense, he talked about the need to go ahead and get this done."
Corporate corruption is becoming a bigger political issue for both parties before the legislative elections in November.
The president is also facing questions about stock sales while he was director of a Texas oil company 10-years ago. Investigators in that case found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Judicial Watch says it is an independent watchdog group. It has also sued for access to the records of the vice president's energy task force.
The group has filed dozens of lawsuits alleging misconduct by the former Clinton Administration and accused the Republican House and Senate fundraising committees of illegally selling access to public officials by promising to have donors meet with Bush administration officials.