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U.S. House Members Should Return Ill-Gotten Contributions From Westar, Public Citizen Says

June 19, 2003

U.S. House Members Should Return Ill-Gotten Contributions From Westar, Public Citizen Says

House Members May Have Violated Federal Bribery Law by Taking Money From Unscrupulous Energy Company Pushing for Beneficial Legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen today called on several lawmakers to return campaign contributions they received from Westar Energy’s former CEO David C. Wittig, who is currently under indictment for fraud. Public Citizen also said in a letter to the House ethics committee that lawmakers should initiate an investigation into possible violations of federal bribery laws and the House code of ethics.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) has said that he will return the $1,000 he received from Wittig. Public Citizen suggested that recipients should follow his lead, and that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas), W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), Anne Northup (R-Ky.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) follow Sen. Sununu’s lead and return a total of $8,000 they received from Wittig.

A political action committee set up by Rep. DeLay also received $25,000 from Westar – money that should be returned to the company’s shareholders, Public Citizen said.

Internal memos released by the company as part of its internal fraud investigation outline Westar’s plan to contribute cash to influential lawmakers in exchange for their support of a regulatory exemption that would have enabled Westar to split its regulated utility from the rest of its businesses. Under this move, executives would have reaped millions while $3 billion in unrelated debt would have been transferred to the utility company, saddling consumers with higher electricity rates.

The memos also say that Barton, DeLay and Tauzin requested that Westar make contributions to their political allies instead of to their own campaigns.

Barton has acknowledged inserting the special provision for Westar into energy legislation that was pending in a House-Senate conference committee in September 2002, even though it had never passed in either the House or Senate bills. The provision would have exempted the company from regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission under the Investment Company Act, a statute designed to protect shareholders. Barton, Tauzin and DeLay all voted to keep the provision when Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) made a motion to strike it. The provision was later removed by House Republicans after revelations that the company was under criminal investigation.

“The memos say explicitly that the company wanted to use the donations to buy ‘a seat at the table’ – and it got one,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “The first step lawmakers should take to disentangle themselves from this corrupt company is to return every dime they received from it. In addition, there should be thorough investigations by the Justice Department and the House ethics committee.”

Barton, Jones and Oxley accepted contributions from Wittig after the company acknowledged in September 2002 that it had been served with a federal grand jury subpoena by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas.

Although citizens are not allowed under House rules adopted in 1997 to submit ethics complaints, Public Citizen, in a letter to Rep. Joel Hefley, chair of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, cited House ethics rules and bribery statutes that DeLay, Tauzin and Barton may have violated by exchanging legislative favors in exchange for Westar’s contributions.

“We believe the committee has ample reason to investigate given the explicit ethical questions raised in the memos and by the public records proving that the bribery plan was carried out,” said Tyson Slocum, research director for Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

Public Citizen also has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the potentially illegal donations. To view the Westar’s memos, Public Citizen’s letters and a chronology, click here.