WASHINGTON – A group with Democratic ties is filing complaints against Rep. Billy Tauzin (search) of Louisiana and Sen. Richard Shelby (search) of Alabama, saying they may have solicited campaign donations from a utility in exchange for legislative assistance. Both men deny soliciting the donations or providing any help.
Citing internal documents from Westar Energy of Topeka, Kan., Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (search) questioned whether Tauzin and Shelby violated rules of professional conduct for lawyers, filing the complaints with disciplinary panels in the home states of the two, who are attorneys.
The directors of the group filing the complaints include Democratic pollster Mark Penn and a donor to the political campaigns of both Clintons as well as Al Gore.
At issue are more than $55,000 in campaign donations from Westar and its executives last year to members of Congress. Westar was seeking a legislative exemption from regulatory oversight; the exemption could have helped the company save billions of dollars. Tauzin chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Shelby chairs the Senate Banking Committee.
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.
The documents, which surfaced recently in an internal probe of the company, state that Tauzin and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, have requested a donation for another House Republican "in lieu of contributions made to their own campaigns." Shelby "is our anchor on the Senate side," and "he's made a substantial request of us for supporting" the senator's former chief of staff in a congressional race, the documents add.
Tauzin says he was unaware that Westar was seeking the exemption and that he never solicited the company for donations. Shelby's office says he made no request of Westar for donations and rejected a request to write a letter to another senator on the company's behalf. Barton and other congressional Republicans dropped their support for the exemption when a federal grand jury began investigating the company.
"Never in more than 31 years of public service has anyone ever questioned my official conduct," Tauzin said Wednesday. "I am absolutely confident that this politically-motivated complaint will be properly dismissed." His spokesman, Ken Johnson, said "this is day-old garbage" amounting to "another political attack by a Washington-based political hack."
"Since Sen. Shelby made no such request for funds and clearly opposed Westar's legislative initiative, this claim is baseless and absurd," said Shelby spokeswoman Andrea Lofye.
A newly formed organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington joined environmental groups this month in requesting that a special prosecutor investigate the Bush administration's No. 2 official at the Interior Department, a former lobbyist, to determine if he violated conflict of interest laws or lied to Congress.
Among the group's directors is Daniel Berger, a class-action lawyer from Philadelphia who co-hosted a fund-raising for Clinton's presidential campaign in 1996. Pollster Penn has worked for presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and the Clintons.
"We are nonpartisan," insisted Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director. "We would go after anybody who we thought was involved in unethical conduct."