- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

A government watchdog group yesterday asked Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman to quit a politically charged investigation of Enron Corp. because he and his New Democrat Network have received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from firms with ties to the case.
Citigroup Inc., the largest creditor of Enron in the bankruptcy action, is Mr. Lieberman's single biggest campaign contributor since 1997, with $112,000 in donations. It gave an additional $100,000 last year alone to the New Democrat Network that Mr. Lieberman founded, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The campaign donation disclosures highlight the political risks in the Enron investigations for congressional Democrats, who are eager to publicize the Bush administration's ties to the Texas-based energy company.
Although Enron gave generously to the Bush campaign and to congressional Republicans, Democrats are not immune to charges of influence peddling. Enron also donated $25,000 to Mr. Lieberman's New Democrats in 2000, records show.
Those donations create potential conflicts of interest that should disqualify Mr. Lieberman from leading a congressional probe of the collapsed energy firm, the Fairfax-based National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) told the senator in a letter.
"To assure the public of the integrity of the Senate investigation and to avoid the appearance of a double standard recusing yourself is the only appropriate step for you to take," wrote NLPC President Peter Flaherty. The foundation is devoted to ethics in government.
A Lieberman spokeswoman said the Connecticut Democrat will not step down as chairman during the hearings, which will begin Jan. 24 in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
"Senator Lieberman has pledged to hold a fair hearing but has also pledged to hold an aggressive hearing," spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said, calling the conflict-of-interest contention "not a valid criticism."
"He has demonstrated his independence from Enron and thinks people should judge him for his actions," she said.
About one-third of congressional Democrats are members of the New Democrat Network that Mr. Lieberman founded in 1996 with Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Simon Rosenberg, a former aide in the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. Arthur Andersen, Enron's auditing firm, contributed $20,000 to the New Democrat Network in 2001.
Enron was one of the generous corporate sponsors of the Senate Democrats' exclusive suites for power players at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000. It also underwrote a "Mardi Gras Goes Hollywood" party for Mr. Breaux at a Paramount Studios backlot during the convention.
Two Texas Democrats, Reps. Ken Bentsen and Sheila Jackson-Lee, are the leading House recipients of Enron campaign donations since 1989 with $42,750 and $38,000, respectively.
"Are [Democrats] prepared to bash Enron for its influence peddling when Sheila Jackson-Lee and Ken Bentsen are two of its biggest campaign recipients? That should be a fun debate," said a House Republican aide.
Another challenge for Democrats is to investigate the Bush administration's ties to Enron Corp. aggressively enough to get credit for the story while avoiding personal attacks against a popular wartime president.
"It'd better be fair," said Democratic strategist James Carville. "If they go out and act like a bunch of idiots and start shooting watermelons, it'll be bad."
He was referring to Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, who in 1994 tried to re-enact the suicide of former Clinton aide Vince Foster by firing a .38-caliber handgun into a pumpkin.
Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein said a probe that gets bogged down in politics would cause a backlash with the public.
"If you're excessively partisan, it can hurt your credibility," Mr. Gerstein said. "He's committed to doing this in a nonpartisan way. Aggressive, comprehensive and fair that's the only way to do this."
While Democrats don't want to be perceived as going overboard in their investigations of the Enron bankruptcy, they do want to portray themselves as fighting for workers' rights and to cast Republicans as beholden to big business. Some Democrats say they are already chasing a story that is being driven by the media.
"If the Democrats didn't do anything, the press would uncover all the [administrations] ties with Enron," said a senior House Democratic leadership aide. "There's no way you could stop this. This is an investigation that's going to be led by the press more than the Hill."
Since 1989, about 73 percent of Enron's $5.8 million in campaign contributions went to Republicans and 27 percent to Democrats. Mr. Carville said Democrats come out ahead politically in that equation.
"It'll hurt them 27 percent and the Republicans 73 percent," Mr. Carville said. "I'll take that. I'll win that election."
Enron was the 12th-largest contributor to the Bush presidential campaign.
President Clinton in 1997 got involved with Enron's attempt to undertake a $3 billion power-plant project in India. But the senior House Democratic aide said comparisons between the Clinton and Bush administrations' relationships with Enron do not trouble incumbent Democrats.
"There might be a downside for Clinton people, but they're not up for re-election," the staffer said. "If the Republicans want to trade live bodies for dead ones, that's OK with us."
A Bush administration official said Senate Democrats will be taking "a huge risk" if they combine partisan investigations into Enron with a pattern of blocking the administration's agenda.
The official noted that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, already started the year with a "partisan" speech on the economy. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, will give a speech today in Washington in which he is expected to call for freezing a portion of the administration's $1.35 trillion tax cut.
"If the contrast is an administration that's trying to get things done in a bipartisan way, while fighting a war, it's a heck of a contrast in an election year," the Bush official said. "They risk looking like a partisan group of politicians who are on a witch hunt."

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