A multimillionaire House Republican who owns thousands of shares of BP stock has no plans to recuse himself from a congressional investigation related to the Gulf oil spill or from votes on Capitol Hill that could affect his investments in the oil company.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin has avoided directly criticizing BP for the spill itself. At the same time, he has watched his BP stock tank in value.
Worth more than $251,000 just a few years ago, Sensenbrenner's 3,604 shares of BP PLC stock have plunged in value to just $116,000 based on midday Thursday trading. That's roughly half their value the day before the April 20 oil spill. Sensenbrenner has said his net worth is about $10 million.
The No. 2 Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and a former chairman, Sensenbrenner has kept a low profile on the issue, but now he's coming out swinging: He has written a letter to President Barack Obama questioning BP's actions and the adequacy of the White House response -- but refrains from directly criticizing BP for the spill.
Sensenbrenner also has complained about the government's criminal investigation into the circumstances of the oil spill. He said the Justice Department should have identified specific companies it might be targeting for its investigation and that threatening to prosecute BP in court could prevent the company from cooperating fully with Washington.
"BP and the government need each other," Sensenbrenner wrote in a column published Thursday on his website. "So, I question again, how is the president publicly chastising and threatening BP with criminal actions -- a company that has pledged to pay for the damage caused by the oil spill accident and who likely wants this resolved more than anyone -- helping to stop the oil?"
In the seven weeks after the April 20 spill, Sensenbrenner had avoided making public statements on the disaster, other than responding to questions from constituents in his district, spokeswoman Wendy Riemann said. He plans to participate in the Judiciary Committee's investigation surrounding legal liability issues of the spill.
"He has no intention of recusing himself from any votes," Riemann said. "The congressman's voting record demonstrates that he always votes for what he believes is in the country's best interest, regardless of his financial interests."
Sensenbrenner is not required under House rules to recuse himself from BP-related issues, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. But she said it creates an appearance of impropriety, since he is dealing with issues directly affecting a company in which he has a financial interest.
House rules effectively prohibit such lawmakers only from a bill in which the lawmaker is the only one in which he or she has an interest.
Sensenbrenner represents the wealthiest district in Wisconsin and is not at risk of losing his seat in the November elections. In his 16th term, he was first elected to the House in 1978 at age 35, and he has had little trouble winning re-election ever since.
In February, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., one of the richest members of Congress, recused herself from hearings by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and any floor votes based on its recommendations about the safety of Toyota vehicles. The congresswoman and her husband together reported having between about $116,000 and $315,000 in Toyota securities, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics of the personal financial disclosure statement she and her husband filed last year for 2008.
In 2005, Sensenbrenner -- over the objections of BP -- voted in favor of a ban on oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes.
Sensenbrenner last month disclosed that his net worth was $10 million, including BP PLC stock valued as of March 31 at $57.07 a share for a total of $205,680. Riemann said Sensenbrenner has not touched his BP holdings, even after the spill. He has owned the stock since at least 2000.