USA: Westar Energy Review Finds Efforts to Sway Key Republicans

Washington -- Key Republicans, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, solicited campaign donations from a financially strapped utility that was seeking their help in winning an exemption from a federal law, according to internal company records.

The lawmakers denied on Thursday there was any connection between the donations and the exemption. Federal law forbids the seeking or granting of government business in exchange for donations.

The documents state that executives of Westar Energy wanted to use the tens of thousands of dollars in donations they made to Republicans to get "a seat at the table" of a House-Senate conference committee on the Bush administration's energy plan.

The exemption, from a law intended to protect shareholders and ratepayers, was inserted into that plan, then pulled after the utility came under grand jury investigation.

The documents show at least one Westar executive questioned why he was contributing to GOP candidates he did not know.

The answer, according to the documents: DeLay, House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, Rep. Billy Tauzin and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby were needed for their help on the exemption and had asked that donations be directed, not to their own campaigns, but to those of fellow Republicans in tight races in 2002.

Among the beneficiaries were a DeLay fund-raising committee that got $25,000; Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who got $1,000 from a Westar executive; and Tom Young, Shelby's former chief of staff, whose unsuccessful run for Congress attracted $1,700 in Westar executives' donations.

"DeLay is the House Majority Leader" and "his agreement is necessary before the House Conferees can push the language we have in place in the House bill," one Westar executive wrote in an e-mail encouraging the donations.

"Shimkus is a close associate of Billy Tauzin and Joe Barton, who are key House Conferees on our legislation. They have made this request in lieu of contributions made to their own campaigns."

The same e-mail added: "Tom Young is Senator Shelby's Chief of Staff who is running for the House in Alabama" and Shelby "made a substantial request of us for supporting Young's campaign."

The documents offer a rare window into a company's efforts to win influence on Capitol Hill, and have surfaced as part of an investigation launched by the company into the conduct of several of its executives and a Washington lobbyist who organized the donations.

Former New York U.S. attorney Mary Jo White, who oversaw investigations of campaign finance wrongdoing and Sen. Robert Torricelli's ethics, led the internal probe of Westar executives.

Barton, R-Texas, said he introduced the exemption long before the donations. Shelby says he did not ask the company to make donations. DeLay's office said there was no arrangement to push the company's request through Congress in exchange for donations.

"It's presumptuous for someone to think that by contributing to candidates who have challenging elections there's something they'll get in return other than helping a candidate win," DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy said Thursday. He said the documents' descriptions were "simply incorrect and inappropriate."

Barton's office said flatly, "There was no quid pro quo whatsoever."

Barton was one of the lawmakers assigned to the conference committee that finalized Bush's energy plan in 2002, and he introduced the exemption that would have freed Westar from unwanted regulatory oversight. The exemption was a critical component of Topeka, Kan.-based Westar's plan to split its regulated utility from the rest of its businesses.

Kansas regulators had already barred the company from splitting in two, and Westar then tried to make its case at the federal level through Congress.

Creating two publicly traded companies would free Westar's non-utility businesses from regulatory oversight and possibly allow the company to transfer more than $3 billion in debt to the utility. The utility then could try to pass those costs to its customers through rate hikes.

The Senate dropped the provision after revelations a federal grand jury was investigating the company. Westar's former CEO is currently under indictment.

House Republicans also dropped their support for the Westar exemption last fall after alerted to the investigation by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who called the exemption being sought by Westar an "Enron-like loophole."

Westar said Thursday it has hired lawyers who are experts in federal campaign finance law "to investigate the matter further." The investigation to date "is thorough and speaks for itself," the company added.

Barton spokeswoman Samantha Jordan said the congressman had introduced the exemption in 2001 and that it was dropped because some members of Congress opposed it "and also we were hearing rumors that there was something going on at the company."

Among the documents released by the company are May 20, 2002, e-mails in which a Westar executive asked why he was writing checks to Republican congressional candidates he had never heard of.

The Westar executive said the amounts he was being asked to give were far in excess of what he had earlier understood he would have to spend.

"Who is Shimkus, who is Young. DeLay is from TX what is our connection?" queried the executive. "Happy to give but earlier ... memo had me giving I think $300-400 per candidate. I am confused."

A quick reply came back.

"You probably didn't get a copy of the memo sent internal mail on Friday about the current legislative issue in Washington," a Westar executive replied. "Right now, we have $11,500 in immediate needs for a group of candidates associated with Tom DeLay, Billy Tauzin, Joe Barton and Senator Richard Shelby."

The e-mails described Shelby as "our anchor on the Senate side."

On Thursday, Shelby spokeswoman Andrea Lofye said "Senator Shelby has never supported an exemption for this individual company nor has he made a request for campaign contributions on behalf of Tom Young for this company."

Westar executives outlined a plan to gain influence with the conference committee.

"We have a plan for participation to get a seat at the table" and "the total of the package will be $31,500 in hard money, individual, and $25,000 in soft money, corporate," one executive wrote in an e-mail.

In May 2002, around the time the e-mails were written, Westar gave $25,000 to a DeLay fund-raising organization, Texans for a Republican Majority.

An advocacy group that tracks energy policy criticized the donation.

"Tom DeLay should return that money to Westar's shareholders," said Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen. "Regardless of what DeLay's impression was, the fact is that the company believed that the $25,000 was securing them preferential treatment."

AP business writer Brad Foss in Washington contributed to this story.


NOTE:For more information on the Westar Energy bribery scandal visit the Critical Mass Energy & Environment Program website at Public Citizen

AMP Section Name:Money & Politics
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