It’s not as if Westar Energy hasn’t seen enough trouble, but it’s now reported that top executives of the Kansas-based energy company believed $56,500 in contributions to political groups associated with four leading Republican lawmakers last year would buy them exemption from a controversial federal utility law, The Washington Post reported Friday.

With the political donations, the company apparently had hoped to win a special exemption from repeal of Public Utility Holding Co. Act (PUHCA) that was being considered as part of broad-based energy legislation on Capitol Hill. Details of the contributions were revealed in a series of e-mails written by top Westar executives, which were brought to light during an internal review that was conducted by a special panel.

A Westar Energy spokesman said the company turned over the e-mails along with other documents to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Topeka, which is investigating matters related to the misuse of corporate aircraft and executive compensation. But he noted he was not aware of any outside investigation into the company’s political contributions.

Westar’s board of directors last year formed a special committee in response to grand jury subpoenas in September 2002 (see Power Market Today, Sept. 30, 2002). The subpoenas demanded the production of documents and information relating to the use of Westar ‘s aircraft, the activities of David Witting who at the time was the company’s chairman, president and CEO, and other general matters relating to Westar (see Power Market Today, Dec. 27, 2002; May 19).

One Westar executive informed colleagues in an e-mail that “we have a plan for participation to get a seat at the table” of a House-Senate conference committee on the energy bill, which was held last fall but failed to produce a conference report, according to the published report. The cost, he estimated, would be $56,500 to campaign committees, including some associated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin of Louisiana, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, it said.

According to the e-mail, Tauzin and Barton “made this request” for contributions, while Shelby “made a substantial request” for another candidate, the Post reported. The e-mail did not say whether DeLay had made a direct plea for donations. It’s against the law for politicians to promise legislative considerations in return for money.

Spokesmen for all four Capitol Hill leaders on Thursday denied there was any connection between Westar Energy’s donations and the positions they espoused during the debate on energy legislation last year. The PUHCA exclusion sought by Westar initially was part of energy legislation sponsored by Barton, but it was later withdrawn after a grand jury began looking into the potential wrongdoing of Westar corporate executives, according to the Post.

The Westar Energy officials who were involved in the e-mails have since resigned, taken leave or been fired from the troubled company, it said. A report by a special committee to Westar’s board of directors, which was released in April, touched on the company’s political contribution activities, and recommended a closer review. A Westar Energy spokesman said the e-mails have been referred to a lawyer specializing in campaign finance law to determine if civil or criminal laws were broken.

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