Enron lobbied heavily in state

Bankrupt energy firm key player in passage of utility deregulation

February 18, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Enron Corp., the fallen Houston energy giant, is neither seen nor heard from in Annapolis these days, but for five years the company went on a lobbying and campaign-contribution spree that pumped more than $350,000 into Maryland's political economy.

In its lobbying heyday of 1998-1999, Enron was spending almost $100,000 a year to influence Maryland lawmakers as they considered a plan to deregulate the state's electricity market. The company became a key player in crafting a deal with the entrenched utilities that led to the bill's passage in 1999 despite the protests of consumer groups.

But now, nothing.

Gary R. Alexander and his associates in the firm Alexander & Cleaver are still registered to represent the bankrupt company, according to officials at the State Ethics Commission. But Alexander said he and his colleagues have recently sent papers terminating their lucrative run as Enron's lobbyists.

"We were surprised as anybody when they imploded as they did," Alexander said. "All the people we dealt with were there one day and gone the next."

Alexander, a former Prince George's County delegate and state people's counsel, said he expects to end up on Enron's creditors' list as the company goes through the bankruptcy process. He said he will miss Enron as a client.

From late 1996 through late last year, Alexander personally billed the firm for $258,755. Not all of that went into his pocket; some went for expenses such as the $11,769 the company spent on receptions in 1997-1998.

Other Enron money went to his associates during those years: Ivan Lanier ($25,805); Chantel O. Ornstein ($17,574); Peter White ($26,077); and Robin F. Shaivitz ($11,520). In all, the firm collected about $340,000 from Enron - not including other money it received for representing it before the Public Service Commission and in lobbying matters in Delaware and the District of Columbia.

Enron's spending might have been impressive, but it was hardly unusual for a company with important interests before the General Assembly. The Texas company's spending pales beside that of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which spent more than $1 million during six months in 1998-1999.

Alexander said the loss of a client hurts, especially in a weak economy. However, he insists the firm is strong, and the numbers suggest he's correct. In its 2000 annual report, the most recent one available, the ethics commission ranks Alexander No. 1 in lobbyist earnings with $792,270 and Alexander & Cleaver second among firms with $1.5 million.

Although it lobbied Maryland politicians, Enron was also greasing the wheels with political campaign contributions amounting to $14,500 since 1997.

The company hedged its bets in the 1998 election by giving $4,000 each to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Most of the other gifts went to top General Assembly leaders, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, each of whom received $1,000.

Although Enron was far from the biggest spender in the deregulation fight, legislators who were in the thick of it recall that the company and its lobbyists played a pivotal role.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a deregulation critic, said Enron was part of a coalition of large out-of-state energy suppliers and big Maryland energy users.

"Gary Alexander was leading the coalition," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Alexander recalled the deregulation struggle, which dragged through the 1998 and 1999 Assembly sessions, as one of the toughest legislative battles he has fought - with seemingly endless rounds of briefings, meetings and hearings.

"Looking back on it, we would rather have been on an hourly basis that year," he said.

Alexander said the company helped craft a good bill.

"Enron, I think, was a very important part of the process in Maryland and certainly had a role in shaping that legislation that was enacted," he said.

Frosh said he does not see that role as positive. He said deregulation has failed to bring competition, with only a few years remaining before price caps expire.

"What we have now is an unregulated monopoly, and now we don't have any energy conservation programs or programs to take care of poor people," he said. "All in all, I would say Enron's vision of what was good for Maryland proved not to be very wise."

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