Groups wary of Congress' Enron probe

Watchdogs believe campaign donations present a conflict

Some money returned

Company, Andersen gave $3.6 million since '89, center says

January 20, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Of the nearly dozen congressional committee chairmen who are investigating the financial dealings of the Enron Corp. and its former auditor, Arthur Andersen, Rep. Billy Tauzin has so far been the most aggressive.

Yet the Louisiana Republican, who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has also raked in more campaign donations from those two corporations - $63,464 since 1989 - than any of the other lead investigators in Congress.

Congressional watchdog groups say these contributions create a conflict of interest that raises doubts about how zealously Tauzin and others lawmakers will pursue the inquiry.

More than half the members of the House and nearly all the senators have received donations from Enron or Andersen, totaling more than $3.6 million over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the same period, Tauzin received $57,000 from Andersen - more than any other person in the House.

"Tauzin has been doing a good job, but the campaign contributions create the perception that his response will not be as aggressive as it should be," said Tyson Slocum of the watchdog group Public Citizen.

Some critics say they are particularly skeptical about how thoroughly Congress will examine whether its regulatory failures contributed to Enron's collapse.

"I just don't think they are going to get to the heart of the matter," said Bill Allison of the Center for Public Integrity.

The lost retirement savings of Enron employees, which have attracted much congressional attention, are "only a symptom of the problem," which Allison said involves the relationships of lawmakers to the industries they regulate.

But Tauzin and his colleagues reject the suggestion that they cannot function objectively.

"Both Enron and Andersen are in for a spanking" from Tauzin, said his spokesman, Ken Johnson. "He's going to take the investigation wherever it leads."

As evidence, Johnson pointed to Tauzin's role in investigating Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to determine their responsibility for fatal explosions of tires on Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles. Both companies had contributed to Tauzin's campaigns, Johnson said, but "we took them to the woodshed."

Attorney General John Ashcroft has recused himself from the Justice Department's criminal investigation of Enron because he received campaign donations from the company while he was running for the Senate. But Tauzin sees no such conflict, his spokesman said.

"He's not recusing himself, and he's not returning any money," Johnson said of Tauzin. "We'd like to believe that people give to Billy's campaigns because they support his views. If they give because they think they're going to get something for it, they're out of luck."

Even so, many politicians seem uneasy about how voters might perceive the cozy relationships the two companies enjoy throughout Washington - with the Bush administration, with the leadership of both parties, as well as with Congress. Since 1989, Enron and Andersen combined have donated nearly $11 million to federal candidates and to both parties.

The recipients include all the members of Maryland's congressional delegation except Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore.

Some lawmakers and party committees have decided to return contributions from Enron, donate them to funds for Enron employees who lost their retirement savings or give the money to charities.

The Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association returned $80,500 that Enron donated to them in the fall, just as the company was imploding and its stock - in which employee retirement accounts were heavily invested - was sinking.

"We thought that the appropriate thing to do was to return money we got while the company was collapsing," said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the RNC.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have donated $100,000 each in "soft money" they received from Enron last year to funds intended to aid Enron employees.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, has given $1,000 his campaign received from Enron to a children's hospital in his hometown of St. Louis.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, is donating a 10-year-old Enron contribution of $1,000 to the Fuel Fund of Maryland, which helps poor residents pay their fuel bills.

"Enron Corp.'s conduct, particularly toward employees, is shameful," Mikulski said in a statement. Her remarks mirrored those of Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, who said leaders there had concluded that the once well-connected Enron executives "are not people we want to be associated with."

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