by SUZANNE GAMBOA
WASHINGTON — In only a few e-mails, Enron employees laid bare the reality of politics: the money trail from companies seeking favors from lawmakers with the power to grant them.
The e-mails circulated among Enron officials in 2000 and 2001, before the collapse of the Houston energy company, are under review by the House ethics committee, which is considering whether to investigate the fund-raising activities of the No. 2 leader in the House, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Enron officials map out in the e-mail how to get the most for their financial contributions, while politicians compete for credit in securing large campaign donations from the company.
The e-mails “really do pull the curtain back and give you a view of how it’s done,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions and spending.
Attention has refocused on the e-mails since a Texas Democrat filed an ethics complaint last month against DeLay. Rep. Chris Bell accused the majority leader of soliciting and accepting political contributions from a Kansas energy company, Westar Energy Inc., in return for legislative favors.
DeLay’s office denies there was any quid pro quo. DeLay contends Bell filed the complaint because Bell is bitter over losing his primary race in March.
What DeLay and other politicians cannot deny is that the Enron e-mails illustrate the nature of political fund raising.
“The e-mails are an indication of what goes on behind closed doors,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, an ethics watchdog group that has filed suits over political fund-raising.
Both Democrats and Republicans, he said, “engage in a shell game that from outside may look at times technically legal, but when you get these communications on contributions solicited for the campaign, their technical arguments fall apart.”
In an e-mail from May 31, 2001, Enron lobbyists Rick Shapiro and Linda Robertson discuss a $50,000 contribution solicited by Republican organizations for a dinner saluting President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“With the assistance of Congressman Tom DeLay we were able to apply our previously contributed soft money toward this dinner. Consequently, we will be credited as giving $250,000 to this event, even though we are being asked to give only $50,000 in new soft money,” according to the e-mail sent to Enron’s now ex-chairman, Kenneth Lay, and a second executive.
Soft money contributions are made by companies and individuals to political parties. These donations to parties were outlawed by a campaign finance law that went into effect in 2002. Other organizations still can accept soft money dollars but are limited in how they can spend them.
The e-mails show “pretty clearly corporations were being asked for contributions by members of Congress who held the fate of legislation important to corporations in their hands,” said Trevor Potter, president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance monitoring group.
“There’s always a risk this will creep back into the system, and politicians will again try to raise it. These e-mails point out the dangers of that to an ethical form of government,” said Potter, a former member of the Federal Elections Commission, which regulates political fund raising and spending.
Just as Enron wanted credit for its contribution, Republican lawmakers vied for credit in raising the money, e-mails show.
Bringing in lots of political money helps raise a politician’s stature in the party, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena, Mont.
The Enron lobbyists said in the e-mail they would split credit for $100,000 of the contribution among DeLay; former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas; Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who is now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
The lobbyists said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, “has requested that Enron give her some of the credit” for the other $100,000 in the contribution.
The e-mails have raised questions about whether the contributions were being used to influence state races in Texas. The state bans corporate money from elections except for administrative purposes such as paying rent.
An e-mail from July 24, 2000, says Lay and Enron’s president at the time, Jeffrey Skilling, received “notes from Tom DeLay about designating portions of their contributions for use in Texas.” The e-mail says DeLay has provided a letter for the company to use when making a $100,000 contribution.
“They clearly are orchestrating this and trying to thread the needle in terms of how to couch the letters,” Noble said. “But that goes on all the time. People are told you have to do it this way if you want to be legal.”