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June 17, 2010

Rep. Joe Barton, Ranking Republican (and former Chair) of the Energy and Commerce Committee, plays b

By CREW Staff

Note: This analysis was originally posted on April 27, 2010. Given the attention focused on Rep. Joe Barton following his apology to BP today, we thought it warranted a second look.

Rep. Joe Barton’s tangled web of personal and professional interests dates back to at least 2002 when he was linked to a scandal involving a major energy provider. In 2009, CREW called him out for finding “a way to a new low in Washington.” For Rep. Barton, the divide between money and politics doesn’t seem so wide.

According to a February 2010 article in the Dallas Morning News, Rep. Barton earned nearly $100,000 from an interest in natural gas wells purchased from a longtime friend and campaign donor, Walter Mize. Mr. Mize sold the wells to Rep. Barton for an undisclosed amount; Rep. Barton claims he made a “straight business deal” and that he reported it in accordance with federal law and ethics rules. At least one Washington ethics lawyer observed that Rep. Barton may have erred on his financial disclosure report by listing EOG Resources – the company that drilled the wells, and one of the largest independent U.S. oil and gas companies – as the seller. In addition to the profitable interest sold to Rep. Barton, Mr. and Mrs. Mize contributed over $33,000 to Mr. Barton’s campaigns over the last 20 years. Mr. Mize helped shape a portion of the 2005 energy bill by proposing a federal grant program that was later included in the bill. Despite the too-close-for-comfort consultation between Rep. Barton and Mr. Mize, a bigger one remains: Rep. Barton, the Ranking Republican and former Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, serves to benefit financially from increased production of domestic natural gas at the same time as Congress is considering energy legislation with the potential to increase demand for natural gas.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard of Rep. Barton’s close ties to oil or less-than-stellar comprehension of Congressional ethics.

In April 2009, the Washington Times reported that Rep. Barton’s charitable foundation pledged to donate $900,000 to benefit the local Boys and Girls Club and Meals-on-Wheels programs. While the community lauded the Barton Foundation for its generosity, in reality the foundation only donated $90,000 to the Boys and Girls Club between 2005 and 2006 despite raising $397,467 during that same two-year period. The Barton Foundation fulfilled its pledge of nearly $375,000 to the Boys and Girls Club by soliciting companies to make donations in the foundation’s name, a move that highlights Rep. Barton as a philanthropist while at the same time sidestepping congressional lobbying disclosure requirements. Notably, three major companies that supply or deliver energy across Texas donated a combined $60,000 to the Barton foundation and Meals-on-Wheels in the name of the Barton Foundation: Future Energy Holdings – supplying electricity to more than 2 million Texas customers; Burlington Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) – delivering coal to 60 power plants across the county; and Exelon Corp – a major energy generating and supplying company. The Washington Times noted that “the contribution [from Exelon Corp.] was made at a time when Mr. Barton, who has vigorously called for ‘the rebirth of the nuclear power industry in this country,’ was proposing legislation that would help expand the market for nuclear energy. Exelon also had been negotiating for government approval to build a multimillion-dollar nuclear power plant in Mr. Barton’s home state.” The $500,000 pledge made by the Barton Foundation to Meals-on-Wheels remains unfulfilled, though the foundation plans to employ some of the same fundraising tactics to meet that goal.

It wasn’t too long ago when Rep. Barton was involved in another instance of pay-to-play politics.

CREW first reported in 2004 on a scandal involving Westar Energy and members of Congress, including Reps. Tom DeLay, Billy Tauzin (R-LA) and Joe Barton (R-TX). According to a 2003 CorpWatch report, Internal memos released by Westar revealed a plan by executives to “get a seat at the table” during congressional discussions on former Pres. Bush’s 2002 energy plan by contributing over $56,000 to key republicans in Congress. Internal company communication identified Joe Barton and Billy Tauzin as “key House Conferees on our legislations,” and requested executives to contribute $300-$400 each to a close associate of the lawmakers; the memo stated that Reps. Barton and Tauzin had requested the contributions be made to a fellow GOP candidate who was involved in a tight re-election race “in lieu of contributions made to their own campaigns.” At the time the contributions were made, Westar was seeking an exemption from a federal law as a means of avoiding unwanted regulatory oversight and potentially generating increased income; Rep. Barton introduced just such an exemption. The attempt to buy favorable legislation failed for Westar after a federal grand jury investigation began and the Senate dropped the provision.

Funneling money to close associates is not something new to Rep. Barton, he was listed in CREW’s Family Affairs Report after it was discovered that his campaign committee and leadership PAC paid several members of his family and made contributions to his son’s political campaigns.

If the House Ethics committee actually functioned, it could remind Rep. Barton that his obligations lie with the people of Texas, and not with major energy companies, his major campaign donors and the pursuit of enriching his family. But, that's not going to happen. And, Barton's habits seem fairly entrenched.

 

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