Monday, January 30, 2006

New questions raised about Doyle


New questions raised about Doyle
Governor's team says nothing was wrong with utility-backed fund-raiser
By THOMAS CONTENT, STACY FORSTER and STEVEN WALTERS
tcontent@journalsentinel.com
Posted: Dec. 21, 2005

Madison - Executives at one of the utilities whose employees donated more than $43,000 to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle during the process that led to the sale of its nuclear plant held a second fund-raiser for the governor this fall, as state regulators were considering a price increase for the utility, it was learned Wednesday.

A fund-raiser was held for Doyle on Oct. 25, said Kerry Spees, a spokesman for Wisconsin Public Service Corp., the company that was the primary owner of the Kewaunee nuclear plant. The fund-raiser was held during a period when the Public Service Commission was considering whether to give WPS the 17% price increase it had requested.

Last week, the PSC voted to grant the utility a price increase of $79 million, or 9.9%, most of which was tied to the rising cost of natural gas and the company's investment in a new generating plant under construction near Wausau. WPS had sought a much bigger increase - $142 million.

Spees insisted that there is no link between the campaign fund-raisers and actions by the PSC, an independent regulatory agency whose three commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Doyle appointed two of the three members currently serving on the PSC.

"I think people are fishing for stuff that isn't in the water," Spees said.

But the utility's Oct. 25 event for Doyle generated new questions about the governor's fund raising, which is already being investigated because of a controversial $750,000 contract given Adelman Travel, whose founder gave the governor's campaign the maximum $10,000 before and after the contract was signed.

Also, the state Ethics Board is reviewing whether a top state Department of Transportation official broke any state rules by inviting transportation contractors and consultants to another fund-raising event for Doyle. The board's attorney, Jonathan Becker, said that inquiry could be completed by January.

Last week, Milwaukee District Attorney E. Michael McCann said Doyle should have disavowed $725,000 from three Indian tribes given the national Democratic Party, which then spent that amount and then some on the governor's first campaign in 2002.

Jay Heck, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin, said Wednesday that it was inappropriate for Wisconsin Public Service to help raise money for the governor who appoints utility regulators when a rate increase was pending.

The "constant, incessant, perceived need to raise so much money" leaves the Doyle administration open to the perception that its decisions are driven by campaign cash, Heck said.

The Doyle campaign raised about $4.7 million in his first 30 months in office, and campaign advisers say they hope to raise about $11 million by the end of next year. Doyle is up for re-election in November.

"If there wasn't such a need to raise so much money, you wouldn't have to have those fund-raisers," Heck said. "As long as that kind of money is going to be raised, people are going to question whether it comes with strings attached."

Spees said Wisconsin Public Service, like most other utilities, routinely files for rate increases.

"And we'll have one pending after next April, because we file in April of every year," Spees said. "It's safe to say we have one pending, because eight months of the year we do."

WPS employees host fund-raising events for leaders of both parties, in support of "all candidates that are pro-business," Spees said. This year, WPS employees have also co-sponsored fund-raisers for Republican gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Mark Green of Green Bay, as well as for Assembly Speaker John Gard of Peshtigo, a Republican candidate for Green's House seat.

Doyle aide Dan Leistikow said Heck's criticism of the utility's Oct. 25 fund-raising event was "preposterous."

"The PSC is an independent agency that acts like a court," Leistikow said. "The governor doesn't have a role in its decision-making. It's just absurd to try and connect these two things."

WPS executives also sponsored a fund-raiser for Doyle in November 2004, just one day before the PSC rejected the proposal to sell the Kewaunee plant for $220 million to Dominion Resources Inc. of Richmond, Va.

The deal later was approved after Dominion and WPS made changes to the deal at the suggestion of PSC commissioners. Alliant Energy later sponsored a fund-raiser, which occurred less than two weeks after the PSC's vote to endorse the Kewaunee sale. Alliant had owned a small share of the Kewaunee plant.

Utility officials said fund-raisers often are scheduled as long as a year in advance.

Leistikow said Doyle has not been interviewed by investigators looking into circumstances surrounding the Adelman contract. "He's more than willing to talk to them, if they feel it's appropriate," Leistikow added.

Doyle also called the PSC an "independent body" that "makes its own decisions."

Dan Schoof, executive assistant to PSC Chairman Dan Ebert, said the attorney general's office has not been in contact with the agency since issuing a request for records to the PSC earlier this fall.

The PSC turned over 600 pages of records connected to the Kewaunee case to the attorney general's office.

"We anxiously await answering any question they might have about them," said Schoof.

The attorney general's office has been investigating whether the PSC followed the open meetings law and other procedures in the Kewaunee case. In a Dec. 6 statement, the attorney general's office said it would also "investigate any campaign-finance related matters," but refused to explain that statement.

Wednesday, former PSC Chairwoman Burnie Bridge issued a statement calling questions about whether campaign donations played any role in the sale of the nuclear plant "absolutely untrue and deeply offensive."

U.S. Attorney Stephen Biskupic is leading the investigation of the Adelman Travel contract, with the help of the attorney general's office and the Dane County district attorney. Wednesday, a Biskupic aide said he would not comment on the status of the investigation.

Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard also declined to comment Wednesday.

Despite the many questions being raised, Doyle said he was comfortable with fund-raising events scheduled by his campaign.

Doyle campaign manager Rich Judge said he has not been questioned about the Adelman Travel contract, and dismissed criticism of it. That contract was awarded "by the book, with the best and final offer that saved the taxpayers' money," Judge said.

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