WASHINGTON – Several members of Congress and party strategists are refunding WorldCom Inc. campaign contributions or giving them to charity, moving to head off a potential issue in this fall's battle over congressional control.
Rep. William Luther, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the panels investigating WorldCom, is donating at least $7,000 in WorldCom campaign money to a state displaced-worker fund.
"My point is there needs to be a high standard here," said Luther, D-Minn. "This is outrageous conduct. I wouldn't want my campaign benefiting from any of that kind of conduct."
Like Enron, another corporation now mired in scandal, WorldCom and its workers have been prolific donors, contributing close to $1 million for the fall election. The giving continued through last month, when civil fraud charges were filed against the telecommunications company amid revelations it filed inaccurate financial reports.
WorldCom donated $100,000 just two weeks ago to the National Republican Senatorial Committee as a sponsor of a fund-raising dinner headlined by President Bush. The NRSC is giving the money back, committee spokesman Dan Allen said Monday.
The decision was based on developments with the company, Allen said: "I don't want to speculate on the politics of it."
Others are exploring the political possibilities, viewing WorldCom contributions and the broader backdrop of corporate ethics as budding campaign issues.
In WorldCom's home state of Mississippi, Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows, in a contentious House race against Republican Rep. Chip Pickering, plans to give $6,000 in WorldCom donations to a worker relief fund. Shows is criticizing Pickering for refusing to do the same.
"Giving it back shows compassion," Shows campaign spokesman Troy Colbert said. "It shows that you're really on the side of the people who are the innocents in this, and that's the investors and that's the employees."
Although WorldCom is in Shows' current district, Pickering has been the biggest congressional recipient of campaign money from it and its employees, receiving at least $82,050 since 1989, an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics found.
Pickering's campaign will keep the donations, campaign manager Henry Barbour said, adding that Shows will criticize Pickering whether he gives the money away or not.
"Why even look like he's done something wrong?" Barbour said. "We think these are legal contributions from a Mississippi company and Ronnie Shows is grasping for an issue because he doesn't have any to run on."
Shows and Pickering both serve on House committees investigating WorldCom -- Shows on Financial Services and Pickering on Energy and Commerce.
In a close South Dakota Senate race, Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson and Republican Rep. John Thune are both giving their WorldCom contributions away.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., plan to do the same.
WorldCom spokeswoman Julie Moore declined to comment on the political donations or moves to unload them.
WorldCom and its workers have contributed to more than half the House members and about 80 percent of the Senate in the past 13 years, the Center for Responsive Politics review found.
In the 2000 cycle, they gave roughly $1.8 million -- more than two-thirds to the GOP, which then held the majority in both the House and Senate.
WorldCom's overall giving pattern has since changed. It and its employees donated at least $916,000 so far this election, split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats, whose party now controls the Senate.
Some lawmakers have no plans to return their contributions.
House Energy and Commerce Committee member Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has received $27,000 in the past four years. WorldCom has a call center in her district with about 1,000 workers, and Wilson appreciates their support, spokesman Enrique Knell said.
The $6,300 Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, received from the WorldCom PAC since 1989 has come and gone, spokesman Steve Forde said.
"It's not there to return," he said.