Joe Conason's Journal

An apparent crude attempt to bribe the GOP House leadership by a crumbling utility firm is exposed. Will the House investigate?


Salon Staff
June 6, 2003 10:09PM (UTC)

How the Hammer's world really works Today's Washington Post fronts a revealing story from the heartland that must be giving Republican leaders severe heartburn. Overshadowed until now by larger corporate scandals, the troubles of Westar Energy, largest electric utility in Kansas, have been largely ignored by the national media. In the Kansas City Star, however, the thieving executives of the state's largest electric utility have been making big headlines like this and that.

Much of the self-dealing by the Westar management will be all too familiar to anyone who has read about Enron, Tyco, and the other sinkholes of business morality. These Midwestern fatcats reportedly awarded themselves gigantic bonuses, built themselves a $6.6 million executive suite, flew themselves and their families around the country in the corporate jet without reimbursement, falsified records to cover their tracks. And if their own notations are to be believed, several of them participated in a scheme to bribe House Majority Leader Tom "the Hammer" DeLay and other prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill.

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The payoffs are described in e-mails from a Westar vice president to his associates that were discovered during an internal investigation of corporate wrongdoing by the New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton. The firm's voluminous report is now sitting on the desk of the United States Attorney in Wichita. (The e-mails are exhibits 236 and 237 on the page linked above.)

According to the e-mails, the Westar executives were seeking a special exemption from regulation under the Public Utility Holding Company Act regulation a year ago, when the House and Senate were marking up the Bush administration's energy bill. In order to get a "seat at the table" during the deliberations, the company would have to fork over $56,500 to several GOP campaign committees, including several linked to DeLay, his fellow Texan Joe Barton, House Energy Committee chairman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby. The e-mail said that Tauzin, Barton and Shelby had all "requested" the contributions, but did not mention a specific request by DeLay. All of them insist of course! -- that such donations had nothing to do with their actions on behalf of Westar.

Yet somehow that was the impression that the Westar executives took from their meetings and conversations with DeLay and his colleagues. Westar vice president Douglas Lawrence explained the situation in a May 20, 2002 e-mail to his boss, executive vice president Douglas T. Lake: "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." Lawrence went on to add that DeLay's "agreement is necessary before the House Conferees can push the language we have in place in the House bill," and described Tauzin and Barton as "key House Conferees on our legislation."

Since those powerful members were already well-funded with safe seats, they allegedly demanded funds for other GOP candidates. The same e-mail says that Shelby made a "substantial request" for his former chief of staff Tom Young, who was running for a seat in Alabama an allegation vehemently denied by the Senator.

Within days, the money flowed. By May 31, Shelby's protigi Young had received $7,200 from Westar executives; the other beneficiaries included John M. Shimkus of Illinois, Sam Graves of Missouri, Anne Northup of Kentucky, Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia. DeLay's own fund-raising committee also received $25,000 from Westar.

As the Post's Thomas Edsall reports: "The exemption that Westar sought was inserted into the legislation by Barton, but it was later withdrawn after a grand jury began investigating the company for alleged wrongdoing, including securities fraud." (The AP's Pete Yost provides additional fascinating detail in his dispatch on the Westar affair.)

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This remarkable peek at the way the world really works raises three immediate questions: How will federal prosecutors in Wichita handle this blatant bribery scheme? Will any of the Westar suits roll over and talk about the company's friends on Capitol Hill? And will any of the Congressional Democrats or for that matter, honest Republicans muster the courage to file complaints against Tauzin, Barton, Shelby and especially DeLay with the so-called ethics committees of their respective chambers? (Maybe you should ask them.)

As we await answers, a spokesman for the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee offered reassurance: "No one on our committee is going to risk going to jail over a campaign contribution."
[12:52 a.m. PST, June 6, 2003]

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