EXCLUSIVE: Vilsack’s revolving door on energy

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The Iowa energy giant

Public records tell the story of how then-Gov. Vilsack forged a national reputation as an expert on renewable-energy policy at the same time he was developing a relationship with MidAmerican, one of the biggest utilities in his state.

Mr. Vilsack made headlines in January 2003 when he asked Iowa lawmakers to boost by fivefold the state’s energy production from renewable sources. The ensuing action, which involved state regulation, paved the way for MidAmerican Energy’s construction of a $323 million wind farm - the country’s largest.

Two years later, Mr. Vilsack issued an executive order requiring that by 2010 state agencies purchase at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources. By that time, MidAmerican was a key supplier of wind-based energy in the state.

In November 2006, with little more than a month remaining as governor, Mr. Vilsack announced his intention to run for president in a Democratic primary. That pitted him against Mr. Obama, his new boss, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, now a fellow Cabinet nominee-designate.

Trail of donations

All five members of the board of directors of MidAmerican Energy Co.’s parent organization, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., stepped forward with campaign donations for Mr. Vilsack - including one who had never contributed to a Democrat before.

Four of the five board members for MidAmerican Energy in Iowa also donated to Mr. Vilsack’s presidential campaign, although three had contributed in the past to only Republicans and one had never given any money to a political candidate.

Days after he formally left the governor’s office in January 2007, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. hired Mr. Vilsack as a paid consultant on renewable energy and environmental issues. The retiring governor told reporters at the time that his work would include research and input “to policyholders in the holding company on issues involving renewable energy,” although he did not recall the salary for the 40 hours of work he agreed to do each quarter. To this day, Mr. Vilsack has never disclosed to the public how much he made from MidAmerican.

As a Senate committee prepares to consider Mr. Vilsack’s qualifications to be secretary of agriculture during hearings that begin Wednesday, it is unclear whether Mr. Vilsack’s revolving-door relationship with MidAmerican Energy and MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. runs counter to Mr. Obama’s campaign pledges about interest-group connections of his appointees.

Obama transition spokesman Nick Shapiro did not respond to written questions submitted by e-mail on Monday and Tuesday, but said during a telephone call that Mr. Obama vigorously guarded against the influence of lobbyists on both the campaign and in his pending administration, adding that Mr. Vilsack was not a registered lobbyist.

Mr. Shapiro said there was a difference between paid lobbyists and consultants.

John Perkins, head of the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate, a state government agency that represents the interests of consumers and the public in matters before the Iowa Utilities Board, said Mr. Vilsack’s consulting contract with MidAmerican would have precluded him from dealing with Iowa utilities boards.

Mr. Perkins noted that the state already has a statute against employees coming back for two years after leaving office and lobbying boards whose members they might have selected.

He said existing federal statutes do the same.

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