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FirstEnergy's political largess exceeds legal limits

10/18/02

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington - FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron-based utility that owns the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, has been way too generous in giving money to members of Congress - exceeding by at least $15,000 the limits allowed for contributions, a review of campaign records shows.

Such excess benevolence, which can be illegal unless corrected, is "rare," says Matt Keller, legislative director for watchdog group Common Cause. FirstEnergy acknowledged in an interview with The Plain Dealer that it had made "mistakes" in giving too much money.

Partly in response to recent Federal Election Commission questions about some of the contributions, FirstEnergy's PAC is asking politicians to refund the sums that exceeded the $5,000 per-election federal legal limit. It wants back:

$2,000 from Sen. George Voinovich, who so far has received $7,000 from the company for his primary campaign in 2004. A Voinovich spokesman said the senator's re-election campaign sent the refund Oct. 11.

$3,000 from Rep. Tom Sawyer, the lame-duck congressman from Akron who got $8,000 from FirstEnergy for his recent primary. "I couldn't believe it happened," Sawyer campaign aide Mike Fraioli said of receiving too much money. "We're just looking into the records here. Unless somebody's math is wrong, they're going to get their money back."

$7,000 from Sen. Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, who got $12,000 from FirstEnergy for his successful primary campaign, then quit the race amid worries that he would lose in November. FirstEnergy drafted a letter asking Torricelli's campaign for the refund. "It just hasn't gone out yet, because we're in the midst of doing just what you're doing, which is auditing our PAC contributions," said FirstEnergy spokesman Ralph DiNicola.

The requested refunds are in addition to the $1,000 that FirstEnergy's PAC got back in May from Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, and another $1,000 from Rep. John Dingell of Michigan in July.

It's also on top of the $1,000 refund FirstEnergy's PAC got last year from Leadership PAC 2000, a political organization controlled by Rep. Michael Oxley of Findlay. In that case, FirstEnergy exceeded the limit of giving $5,000 a year to another PAC.

"The bottom line with all this is, we are in the process of putting procedures in to try to minimize these kinds of mistakes," DiNicola said. "We certainly weren't trying to hide anything."

Companies use political action committees, gathering contributions from employees, to support members of Congress who share political and economic viewpoints. The money helps selected challengers in districts in which the company does business, and helps companies gain access to lawmakers on important legislative or regulatory matters. FirstEnergy - whose PAC has reported giving $138,000 to federal candidates in the current election cycle - lobbies on energy deregulation, nuclear waste and industry issues, power plant and pollution regulation, and national energy policy, lobbying reports filed with the U.S. Senate show.

It is unclear how the company, as well as the politicians receiving the contributions, failed to notice it was exceeding the $5,000 limits. Politicians and the PAC file separate reports with the FEC that list receipts and disbursements, and the individual contributions - often made in several increments over the course of a campaign - can be easily tallied.

"That's what a mistake is - that somebody doesn't notice what to somebody else like yourself, looking at it after the fact, is obvious," DiNicola said.

Several representatives of the Congress members who received too much money responded similarly. The Sawyer campaign did not notice it had received too much money from FirstEnergy "because we're human," said Fraioli.

But organizations that follow money and influence in politics don't buy that.

"That's their job," said Keller, of Common Cause. "It's the law and they're lawmakers, and they're supposed to comply with the law."

"It is the most basic kind of record keeping," said Paul Sanford, director of FEC Watch, a project at the Center for Responsive Politics. Referring to the people running the FirstEnergy PAC, he said, "Blowing this is not a good sign. PACs are supposed to be familiar with the law. That's what they do."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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