California lawmaker enjoys utility’s largesse

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makes no apologies for taking contributions

The Associated Press

Whenever the Los Angeles Lakers play in Sacramento, state Assemblyman Rod Wright calls around to lobbyists to try to get tickets. Often, Southern California Edison obliges.

And the utility’s generosity goes beyond basketball tickets. Since Wright’s election in 1996, Edison has donated vans to his impoverished South Central Los Angeles district, given him tens of thousands in campaign contributions and underwritten trips to Europe and South Africa.

Other than a campaign fund operated by the speaker of the state Assembly, Wright received more money from Edison in 2000 than any other member of the chamber, state campaign finance records show.

With California locked in a power crisis that has resulted in rolling blackouts, Edison has courted many lawmakers as it tries to avoid bankruptcy. But none has written legislation as favorable to the company as Wright, Democratic chairman of the Energy Costs and Availability Committee.

Edison is getting a lot of bang for their buck” with Wright, said Doug Heller, consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumers Rights. “His single largest contributor is the one corporation that his most recent legislation would directly bail out.”

There is no suggestion that these contributions are illegal; all of them were duly reported by Wright and Edison. But Jim Knox, director of the government watchdog group California Common Cause, said such close ties cause people to worry the energy crisis is being resolved on the basis of campaign contributions.

Wright makes no apologies, saying he will take money from anyone who can give it legally. But he refused to say whether he still takes energy contributions, which many elected officials have declined as too hot to handle since the energy crisis started.

Brian Bennett, Edison vice president of external affairs, said it is standard for a committee chairman such as Wright to get larger contributions from a utility.

Wright is “a bright, capable member of the Legislature who is interested in promoting sound public policy,” Bennett said.

So far, the state’s second-largest investor-owned utility has avoided bankruptcy, while Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest, has not.

Wright has received overseas trips at the expense of the power industry-supported California Foundation on Environment and the Economy. The foundation spent a total of $20,000 taking Wright to Europe in 1999 and South Africa last year.

During the South Africa trip, which included an Edison lobbyist, Wright spent $7,000 from his campaign treasury at two jewelers. His campaign reported the expenditures as “campaign paraphernalia.”

An Associated Press analysis shows Edison also gave Wright’s campaign $22,000 last year and $5,000 to a political action committee he supports.

All told, Edison gave more than $989,000 to California candidates and related campaigns for the 2000 election, state campaign finance records show.

Although Edison officials say they no longer give campaign contributions, records show the utility spent more than $318,000 on lobbyists in the first three months of the year.

The Democratic speaker of the Assembly, Bob Hertzberg, stopped taking electricity-related contributions at the start of the year and returned $34,500 he received late in 2000.

Edison gave Gov. Gray Davis $15,000 during 2000, records show, while Assemblyman Fred Keeley, the Democrats’ leading expert on energy policy, received $5,000. This year, Keeley said he stopped taking energy money.

“Everyone has to establish their own policies, but for me it’s not appropriate to be raising funds from folks who have an economic stake in a crisis that’s beleaguering the state,” Keeley said.

Wright’s contribution to the debate over Edison‘s future came this month with a bill he called a “straight bailout.” Lawmakers and analysts considered it the most generous to Edison of four deals the Legislature is considering.

Wright said he worked “fairly closely” with Edison on his bill, and also consulted with consumer groups.

Now stalled in a committee, Wright’s bill would have allowed Edison to sell bonds backed by customers’ rates to cover all its debts, estimated to be $3.9 billion. Edison customers would repay the bonds over 10 to 15 years.

By contrast, a Hertzberg-Keeley bill would have allowed Edison to sell bonds to cover only about $2.5 billion of its debts and would have required the utility to sell its transmission lines to the state and give up development rights on land near its hydroelectric plants.

However, in the version of the bill now circulating in the Legislature, the sale of the transmission lines has been dropped.

If members of the Senate and Assembly have to meet in a conference committee to settle the Edison matter, Wright will probably be involved.

Consumer Watchdog
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