Westar polling concerns consumer advocates

Shallenburger gubernatorial campaign purchased poll results that showed Sebelius' lead narrowing

? Two consumer advocates expressed concern Thursday about Westar Energy Inc. polling on the governor’s race.

The polling suggested that as of early October, Republican Tim Shallenburger was cutting into Democrat Kathleen Sebelius’ lead. The GOP candidate cited the poll without mentioning the Westar connection.

James Zakoura, an Overland park attorney who represents large Westar customers, and Walker Hendrix, consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, said they worried Westar was trying to influence the race.

The next governor will appoint or reappoint the three members of the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities.

Also, a Sebelius spokeswoman asked whether Westar, the state’s largest electric company, collaborated on poll questions with Shallenburger.

However, a Westar spokesman and Shallenburger’s campaign manager said the two had no direct contact. They said Shallenburger’s campaign had purchased the poll results through the Oklahoma City consulting firm that did the Westar polling and also works for Shallenburger.

Neither Westar nor Shallenburger saw the polling as unusual. Westar spokesman Doug Lawrence said the poll asked more than two dozen questions.

Lawrence said the Westar wasn’t passing polling costs to its 640,000 electric customers.

Shallenburger campaign manager Alan Cobb, a former Koch Industries executive, said large companies routinely polled.

A full poll typically costs between $10,000 and $20,000, he said, while the Shallenburger campaign expects to pay between $500 and $1,000 for its results.

The poll was conducted Oct. 6-7, and Shallenburger gave reporters a summary Oct. 8.

The poll showed Shallenburger trailing Sebelius 37 percent to 46 percent, with 14 percent undecided and 2 percent leaning toward minor party candidates. The sampling error was 4.3 percentage points.

Hendrix, who represents residential and small-business consumers, said he was concerned the polling was done “with the expectation of some outcome here at the KCC.”

Zakoura, a Sebelius supporter, said, “It appears that they are becoming far too involved in the race.”

“Our concern is that the KCC be and appear to be 100 percent away from the political arena,” he added. “All of us want a KCC that is fair is not political.”

Lawrence said the company would be comfortable with either candidate as governor.

Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran-Basso said their campaign learned about the polling results from Westar lobbyist John Bottenberg.

Corcoran-Basso noted the poll asked a question about an Oct. 2 remark Sebelius made, saying driving on Missouri roads was “much more terrifying” than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The polling was finished less than a week before Shallenburger began airing a television ad mentioning the remark, for which Sebelius apologized.

Under Kansas campaign finance laws, the poll results wouldn’t be considered a donation if Shallenburger did not receive a special discount, said Carol Williams, executive director of the state Governmental Ethics Commission.

If Shallenburger did, his campaign would have to report the difference between the actual cost and the regular cost as a contribution; if it hadn’t paid at all, it would have to report the entire cost as a donation.