Archive for Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Lawmakers divided on what to do with donations from Westar, executives

June 25, 2003


— Responses have been mixed among members of the Kansas congressional delegation as pressure mounts to return campaign contributions from a utility now embroiled in a campaign fund-raising controversy.

At issue are more than $55,000 in campaign donations from Westar Energy Inc. and its executives to members of Congress last year. The Topeka-based utility was seeking a legislative exemption from regulatory oversight. The exemption could have helped the company save billions of dollars.

Internal Westar e-mails outline a plan for making campaign donations "to get a seat at the table" of a House-Senate conference committee considering the exemption.

Westar is also reported to have made a $25,000 donation to an organization affiliated with Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, just before attending a two-day get-together at a Virginia resort with the House GOP leader.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt gave away his contribution from former Westar chief executive David Wittig long before concerns were raised that the utility was paying for access, The Wichita Eagle reported this week.

Shortly after Wittig was indicted for money laundering and bank fraud in November 2002, Tiahrt, a Republican from Goddard, contributed $2,800 to Victory in the Valley, a Wichita nonprofit that helps cancer patients and their families.

Though Tiahrt didn't see anything inappropriate about accepting the donation, he wanted to avoid even the hint of association with Wittig.

"He told (Victory in the Valley) that the donation could help with their utility bills," said spokesman Chuck Knapp.

More lawmakers followed suit last week as pressure mounted from clean-government activists. Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., and Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C., both returned $1,000 in contributions from Wittig. Burr was on a House-Senate conference committee considering the Bush administration's energy plan.

Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat from Lenexa, plans to give his Westar contributions to charities that will help pay energy bills for people in his congressional district "to avoid even the appearance of impropriety." Moore has called for an investigation of congressional Republicans connected to Westar's energy-bill lobbying.

Three others are keeping their contributions. Republican Reps. Jerry Moran of Hays and Jim Ryun of Topeka , and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts note that the donations were made before the indictment and have never been questioned as anything other than normal donations.

Another Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback, was undecided about what to do with his contributions, according to spokesman Erik Hotmire.

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