Barton Denies Favoring Westar
Says DeLay Innocent of Charges
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) emphatically denied yesterday that he or other GOP lawmakers, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), inserted language benefiting a Kansas-based energy company into a comprehensive energy bill back in 2002 in return for campaign contributions.
The Texas Republican, who took over as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in late February, also denied that he had ever spoken to DeLay about the company at the heart of the controversy, Westar Energy, during the period when the measure was being debated.
The allegations surrounding Westar are part of an ethics complaint filed last week against DeLay by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas). Barton told his Republican colleagues on Wednesday that Bell should have filed an ethics complaint against him, not DeLay, over the Westar allegations, and insisted both had done nothing wrong. To Barton, this is an attempt by Democrats to turn a policy dispute into an ethics battle, which he believes is inappropriate.
In his complaint, Bell charged that DeLay violated federal law and House rules “by soliciting campaign contributions from Westar Energy in return for legislative assistance on the energy bill.” Westar gave $25,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, which was founded by DeLay, in May 2002. Just days later, several Westar executives attended a TRMPAC golf tournament that DeLay also participated in, although DeLay has denied discussing any legislative issues with them. DeLay has also denied having any role in crafting or pushing the Westar provision.
Barton’s leadership PAC, the Texas Freedom Fund, got $4,000 from Westar, but the 10-term lawmaker asserted that there was no quid pro quo between those donations and his actions on the Westar provision.
“I can state emphatically that there was never any discussion about doing this for Westar because they were raising money for Republican causes or Tom DeLay or myself or [former Energy and Commerce Chairman] Billy Tauzin [R-La.] or anybody else,” said Barton. “It would have just been ludicrous for us to engage in some sort of backroom negotiation on something like this. It fails the test of common sense.”
Barton said he, not DeLay, was responsible for inserting the Westar language into the energy bill in September 2002, although he added that its origin goes back to the previous year.
The language in question would have exempted a Westar subsidiary, the alarm company Protection One, from being regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission as an investment company if Barton succeeded in repealing the 1935 Public Utilities Holding Company Act. PUHCA is favored by DeLay, Barton and other top Republicans.
Barton said an outside lobbyist for Westar, Richard Bornemann of Governmental Strategies, Inc., first came to him in late 2001 seeking help with the provision to exempt Protection One from potential SEC oversight. The language Westar sought was eventually included in a larger bill (H.R. 3406) that Barton introduced in December 2001 outlining a plan to restructure the nation’s electricity industry, as well as an earlier “discussion draft” that the Texas Republican had circulated. At the time, Barton chaired the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality.
Westar “wanted something in the law that said, ‘If you can meet all these tests, you would not be regulated by the SEC as a mutual fund company,’” Barton said of the language covering Protection One. “On policy, I thought it made sense, and I put it in the discussion draft. … If I were trying to hide something, or anybody else were trying to hide something, we wouldn’t put in the discussion draft from Day One.”
Barton said he immediately heard objections on the Westar proposal from the mutual-fund industry, as well as from Democratic Reps. John Dingell (Mich.) and Ed Markey (Mass.), both senior members of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
“It became apparent right off the bat that this thing was going to be troublesome,” Barton recalled. “The concern that was raised against it on policy grounds — and this was the concern that Mr. Dingell and Mr. Markey raised — they never said it was it was wrong to do it for this company. They said it was a loophole that could be used by a lot of companies.”
While the electricity portion of Barton’s bill was never adopted, the House did pass a broad energy bill, and by mid-2002, key Members were preparing to move to conference with the Senate on the issue.
Internal Westar e-mails from May 2002, which became public last year as part of the company’s own investigation into its practices after several top executives were ousted, show that Westar officials wanted to use tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Republican lawmakers to help “get a seat at the table” during the House-Senate talks. The total mentioned in the e-mails was more than $56,000.
To Westar, DeLay was a critical player in its plan. “His agreement is necessary before the House Conferees can push the language we have in place in the House bill,” a May 20, 2002, Westar e-mail stated.
Donations from Westar executives also went to Barton, Tauzin, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and other Republicans. Barton said he never requested that the company or its officials give to anyone.
Barton also claimed that he was surprised as everyone else when the e-mails surfaced later.
“My impression at the time was, ‘What planet did they live on?’” said Barton. “I didn’t know these people, and I had tried to put something in a bill that I thought made sense.”
Barton added: “The implication was in those e-mails that they had to raise some money to get this considered, and that was just bullcorn because we had put it in the draft way back when.”
Bornemann, the lobbyist, set up a meeting on July 24, 2002, between Barton and Westar officials, and Bornemann also attended at least seven Washington fundraisers put on by Barton and Tauzin during the spring and summer of 2002, according to The Washington Post.
In September 2002, with the House-Senate conference dragging on, Barton offered the electricity portion of H.R. 3406 — including the Westar provision — as an amendment to the overall energy bill. Dingell and Markey again objected, but Barton was able to beat back an attempt to strip the provision from the bill.
However, when news of the federal probe into Westar came out soon after that vote — and with Senate Democrats continuing to object — Barton relented and agreed to drop the measure.
Barton insisted that he never talked with DeLay about the Westar language, and said his GOP colleague was not responsible for it being offered. “Tom and I never had a face-to-face conversation on this,” Barton said.
He added that, to the best of his knowledge, DeLay’s staff never pushed the issue either. “There was never any effort to hide this,” Barton said. “There was never any discussion of raising money for this being in or out of the bill or anything like that. I think all of the charges are basically sour grapes on Mr. Bell’s part. He got beat in the Democratic primary by another Democrat and he’s hacked off about it and he wants to blame somebody.”
DeLay’s office declined to comment on Westar for this story, but DeLay has denied any involvement in Westar controversy.
As for Bell, a top aide said Barton’s comments do not end the controversy, and in fact buttress the need for an ethics committee investigation.
“If Mr. DeLay really has nothing to hide, he’ll welcome an ethics investigation and cooperate in every way with that investigation,” said Eric Burns, Bell’s spokesman.
Burns pointed out that Tauzin acknowledged that the provision only benefited one company, Westar, and that fact, along with the internal Westar e-mails and subsequent legislative activity, “warrants an ethics investigation.”
At this point, DeLay has yet to be formally served with a copy of Bell’s complaint by the ethics committee, one of the initial steps required in such a probe. DeLay has not hired a lawyer yet, and has not made any decision whether he will ask for an exemption from the ethics committee to use an existing legal defense fund to help cover the costs from any probe resulting from Bell’s complaint.
DeLay, however, had more than $1 million in cash in his re-election campaign fund and will likely use that to cover any legal bills.