NEW YORK – In the business of politics, utility executive Dwight Evans has been very good for George W. Bush. And vice versa.
Mr. Evans is executive vice president of Southern Co., an Atlanta-based power company that was battling regulators and facing a federal lawsuit over clean air when Mr. Bush won the White House.
He's also a Bush Ranger, part of an elite tier of mega-donors who have raised at least $200,000 each for the president's re-election campaign.
Over the last four years, the electric power industry has contributed heavily to Mr. Bush and benefited from business-friendly policies that environmentalists say have weakened air quality while saving companies billions of dollars.
"They're rolling in the catnip beyond their wildest dreams," said Eric Schaeffer, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project.
Scott Segal, a lobbyist with a Washington firm that represents Southern and other coal-fired power companies, defended the Bush administration's approach as "pragmatic and balanced."
"If you engage in compromise that even leans in the direction of enhanced environmental protection, that still isn't good enough for 90 percent of the environmentalists today," he said.
Mr. Evans did not return a telephone call. A Southern Co. spokesman said that Mr. Evans' role as a Bush Ranger was as "a private citizen" and not related to the utility – and that his donations were not made to win access to decision-makers.
Groups advocating limits on campaign financing say the push by Southern Co. for more favorable treatment from government is a lesson in how money and politics mix, sometimes to the detriment of ordinary citizens.
In the Bush administration, Southern found a willingness to advance a business-minded agenda in ways the previous, Democratic White House would not – by changing government regulations where congressional action failed.
The pollution dispute
John Walke, director of the Clean Air Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the electricity power sector is the biggest producer "of global warming pollution, toxic mercury pollution, smog and soot in America. And more than any other industry, they have received tremendous benefits from the Bush administration."
Mr. Segal disputed that. "Nobody should believe that the environmental community is underrepresented by lobbyists. They may not give political contributions as much, but they are certainly front and center applying political pressure to the process," he said.
Electric utility executives have contributed at least $21 million to Republicans since 2000 – including nearly $7 million to the national GOP and the Bush campaigns, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign donations.
Southern Co. officials have given more than $800,000 to the Bush campaigns and the national party over the last four years.
As a Ranger, Mr. Evans, 56, was the company's point man, raising at least $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney re-election effort. He is one of 10 utility company officials who have reached the upper echelon of Bush donors as either Pioneers ($100,000) or Rangers ($200,000). Erle Nye of TXU, a longtime Bush financial backer, is a Pioneer.
In all, the Bush campaign reports 544 elite fund-raisers – Pioneers and Rangers –who have delivered more than $76 million.
Democrat John Kerry has his own big-money club: Vice Chairmen, who raise $100,000, and Co-Chairs, at $50,000.
Roots of the effort
The effort to capture the White House and change the rules on environmental policy began in May 1999, when electric utility executives received a memo on George W. Bush Presidential Exploratory Committee stationary soliciting contributions.
The memo was from Thomas Kuhn, president of the electric industry's main lobbying group, the Edison Electric Institute, who is a Bush Ranger.
Federal law limited individual contributions to $1,000. In his memo, Mr. Kuhn said that by bundling many donations and attaching a tracking number, fund-raisers could "ensure that our industry is credited and that your progress is listed among other business/industry sectors."
Within weeks of taking office, Vice President Dick Cheney heard from Haley Barbour – a former Republican Party chairman and utility company lobbyist and now the governor of Mississippi – who urged the administration to reverse the Clinton administration and pursue a more business-friendly energy policy.
At the time, Southern and several other utilities faced federal lawsuits filed in 1999 by the Clinton administration, accusing the companies of failing to install expensive pollution-control devices when modifying their generating plants. The companies said they did nothing wrong.
In the weeks that followed, representatives of at least five of the utilities being sued, including Southern, attended the White House energy task force meetings chaired by Mr. Cheney, according to records in a federal lawsuit. All were Bush campaign contributors.
And Mr. Barbour, also a Bush Pioneer, met with Mr. Cheney and others in the Bush administration, according to Mr. Segal and federal records.
Environmental groups complained they were largely shut out of task force deliberations; industry officials deny that.
"What ends up happening is the industry has a voice, the environmentalists have a voice. There are competing voices within the industry, and that discourse, where everybody is represented, produces the best public policy," Mr. Segal said.
The Bush administration has moved on several fronts important to the utility industry. It has reversed the president's 2000 campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and advanced the idea of a market-based approach to curtail mercury pollution.
Mercury, which is produced by burning coal and also occurs naturally in the environment, can cause birth defects and developmental problems in children. Industry officials say the idea would help clean up mercury pollution, but environmentalists say it wouldn't go far enough.
Perhaps the most fractious environmental fight of Mr. Bush's term was over whether companies must install new pollution-control equipment when modifying older, dirtier power plants – the issue that federal records indicate was a primary interest to Southern lobbyists.
Last August, the Bush administration sided with the industry by changing the rules. New investigations over possible Clean Air Act violations were dropped, and pending cases have stalled.
"This is an example of big campaign donors getting huge paybacks," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.
A week after the Environmental Protection Agency modified the regulations, John Pemberton, chief of staff in the EPA division that handled the case, resigned. He joined Southern as a lobbyist.
Another agency official, EPA congressional liaison Ed Krenick, also left. He is a lobbyist with Bracewell & Patterson, which represents Southern.
ON THE SAME WAVELENGTH
Power industry executives who have been major donors to President Bush:
Dwight Evans, Southern Co.
Erle Nye, TXU
Thomas Kuhn, Edison Electric Institute
Don Jordan, Centerpoint Energy (formerly Reliant)
Ron Letbetter, Centerpoint Energy
Jim Rogers, Cintergy
Anthony Alexander, FirstEnergy Co.
James Klauser, Wisconsin Energy
Haley Barbour, ex-industry lobbyist, now Mississippi's governor
... and what their industry has received since his election:
• Access to the White House energy task force, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney
• New rules substantially reducing requirements for utilities to install pollution controls when modernizing plants
• Reversal by Mr. Bush of a 2000 campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions
• A proposal to reduce mercury pollution that environmentalists say would not go far enough.
© 2004 Belo Interactive Inc.