Topeka — Westar Energy wasn't part of the indictment handed up Wednesday against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, but the Kansas utility company has played a role in the unfolding investigation that could bring down one of the most powerful men in the United States.
"Westar's role helped to put it all on the map," said Tyson Slocum, an energy-policy research director with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer watchdog group.
DeLay, an 11-term Republican congressman from Texas, was indicted by a grand jury on a charge of illegally funneling corporate contributions to several Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature. He has denied any wrongdoing, but in accordance with House rules was forced to step down as majority leader.
U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun, a Republican whose district includes west Lawrence, defended DeLay, whose political action committee has given Ryun $31,777, according to campaign finance reports.
"Tom DeLay did the right thing and stepped down from his post as majority leader today," Ryun said.
"The ideals we believe in as Republicans are bigger than any one person, and these ideals will rise above any politics of personal destruction," he said.
Ryun's office said the "politics of personal destruction" comment was aimed at Travis County Dist. Atty. Ronnie Earle, who has been directing the investigation. DeLay and his supporters have accused Earle, a Democrat, of pursuing the charges because of partisan politics, which Earle has denied.
The contributions to DeLay involved in Wednesday's indictment were from several businesses, none of which was Westar.
But last year, in an earlier phase of the investigation, Westar was indicted on a charge of making an illegal contribution to the political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority, which was formed by DeLay, a Houston Republican.
That charge stemmed from a 2002 contribution of $25,000 from Westar and followed revelations that Westar executives at that time sought favor through DeLay of energy legislation that would have benefited the company.
The internal Westar memos outlined a strategy of making campaign contributions "to get a seat at the table" before a powerful congressional conference committee working on an overhaul of the nation's energy laws.
The Westar memos referred to DeLay, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. All have denied any wrongdoing or connection between contributions and their work on the energy bill.
The memos were released from a 376-page company investigative report after an indictment of former Westar chief executive officer and president David Wittig. Earlier this month, Wittig was found guilty of 39 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, circumventing internal controls and money laundering while running the Topeka-based company.
Slocum, with the Washington, D.C., watchdog group, said Westar's "clumsy attempts to secure access helped draw attention as to why a Kansas company would be interested in helping a Texas political action committee."
Westar has denied any wrongdoing with the contribution, saying it was made legally, and the company wasn't responsible for how the money was spent after the company gave it.
Westar still faces the charge in the Texas case.
Karla Olsen, a spokeswoman for Westar, said the company had no comment on the indictment against DeLay.
"We haven't reviewed the indictment," she said.
In August, Westar Energy, two former company executives and a lobbyist agreed to pay fines totaling $40,500 to settle accusations of violating federal election laws by using corporate resources to make political contributions in the 2002 election cycle to members of Congress, including DeLay.