Tauzin Disputes Utility's Donation Allegations

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Monday strongly disputed internal documents from a utility suggesting he solicited donations in exchange for helping the utility get a federal exemption that could have helped save it billions.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (search), R-La., was responding to questions about election records showing that seven of the eight GOP candidates he and energy subcommittee chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, assisted in the last election got money from Westar Energy (search) executives as the company sought help from Congress.

Tauzin and Westar's former Washington lobbyist disputed each other's accounts of how the GOP candidates ended up getting help from Westar.

Former Washington lobbyist Richard Bornemann said he was simply responding to faxed invitations from the organizers of the eight Tauzin-Barton fund-raisers.

Tauzin said through a spokesman that Bornemann had contacted Tauzin's fund-raisers a year ago and obtained a list of all eight upcoming events known as "Tex-Cajun cookouts."

Bornemann "was never solicited and no one from Westar ever attended these events with the exception of Bornemann himself," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.

Bornemann responded by disclosing a notice sent to his office by the fund-raising organizers.

"He asked for" the list of fund-raisers, Tauzin's spokesman insisted. "He said he had a client who wanted to participate and he was then faxed a complete rundown of events. He was never solicited and if he's saying otherwise he's a liar."

Tauzin's spokesman also said Bornemann had been permanently banned from the congressman's office over an incident involving 12 years ago. Bornemann replied that he was "shocked, hurt and surprised" by the criticism from Tauzin's office.

Barton introduced a legislative exemption that would have freed the utility from regulatory oversight, potentially saving the company billions of dollars.

Tauzin insisted through his spokesman that he never knew about the Westar exemption until news reports came out last week.

The Westar documents, which surfaced recently in an internal probe of the company, state that Tauzin and Barton solicited Westar for a campaign contribution for Republican congressman John Shimkus of Illinois "in lieu of contributions made to their own campaigns."

On April 23-24, 2002, Tauzin and Barton staged "Tex-Cajun cookout" fund-raising events for Shimkus and Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo. They were the first two of eight such Tauzin-Barton events on behalf of House Republicans facing competitive re-election races. All eight events were held at the American Trucking Association offices in Washington or at the Washington lobbying firm of former Republican congressman Jack Fields of Texas.

Last June 20, a Westar executive donated $1,000 to Shimkus' re-election campaign. On June 28, the now-indicted former CEO of Westar, David Wittig, donated $1,000 to Graves' re-election campaign.

Graves was a strong proponent of the proposed Westar exemption, which Barton had introduced. As a member of a House-Senate conference committee, Barton voted to retain the Westar exemption, which was later abandoned by Congress when a federal grand jury investigation of Westar became public knowledge last fall.

In addition to his own vote, Barton cast the votes of Tauzin and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as proxies in support of the Westar exemption. Neither Tauzin nor DeLay was in the room during the vote by the House conferees.

Campaign contributions to the seven GOP House incumbents by executives of Westar Energy totaled nearly $7,000 and flowed to the seven in three weeks last June and in five days last October. The donations stopped a week before the utility's former CEO was indicted.