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Great Lakes Article:

Utilities gave Doyle cash as projects OK'd
Some say money was aboveboard; others are critical
By Patrick Marley
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published November 18th, 2004

Madison - Gov. Jim Doyle received more than $50,000 in donations connected to three utility interests around the time the state approved their projects, a campaign finance watchdog reported Thursday.

Political action committees for and employees of Wisconsin Energy Corp., Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and American Transmission Co. gave Doyle $50,660 just before or after their projects received key approvals, according to figures collected by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-partisan group pushing for campaign finance reform.

State Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), who has been unable to get a campaign finance reform bill to the Senate floor for a vote, said Thursday's report showed why changes were needed.

"I don't care how they massage it, how they cover it; this is absolutely selling of policy determinations for campaign donations," Ellis said.

Doyle was in Green Bay Thursday and unavailable for comment. His press secretary, Melanie Fonder, noted that the Public Service Commission, an independent agency, makes decisions on proposals from utilities.

The governor appoints the three-member commission, but Doyle did not enjoy a Democratic majority on the panel until this September, when he appointed former state Sen. Mark Meyer.

Between 2002 and June 30, 2004, people affiliated with the state's gas and electric utilities gave Doyle $133,323, a 17-fold increase over the $7,911 such individuals gave Doyle from 1995 to 2001 when he was attorney general, the report found.

Since Doyle took office - but before a Democratic majority sat on the PSC - the commission approved plans by Wisconsin Energy subsidiary We Energies to build a controversial $2.15 billion coal-fired power plant in Oak Creek.

Wisconsin Energy executives gave Doyle $23,050 in the seven months after the approval, the report found.

Margaret Stanfield, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Energy, said there was no connection between the donations and the approval.

"Our employees, whether they are acting as individuals or whether making contributions through the Wisconsin Energy political action committee, are free to make their own decisions," she said.

The commission signed off in December 2003 on more than doubling the project cost to $420 million of a transmission line that will stretch across northern Wisconsin. Wisconsin Public Service and American Transmission are building it.

Together, the employees of the two companies gave $27,610 to Doyle between October 2002 and January 2003 and between August 2003 and December 2003. The timing of the donations coincided with key periods in the commission's decision process.

Maripat Blankenheim, a spokeswoman for American Transmission, said there was no link between donations and the company's plans.

"I resent the dotted line the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is trying to fill in," she said.

A chance to talk
Tom Meinz, a Wisconsin Public Service Corp. executive vice president, said giving to incumbent politicians has long been a practice of that firm's employees.

"All I can say is, I think the candidates know who we are," Meinz said. "(Making donations) provides you an opportunity to talk to the candidate, and it makes your employees aware. Just as our employees need to be technically aware, they need to be politically aware.

"If (politicians) know who you are based on the fund-raiser, you can knock on their door and say who you are and 'I have some issues.' "

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Democracy Campaign, said the behavior smacked of quid pro quo.

"The pattern is unmistakable, and we've seen it on so many different issues it's impossible to buy the rationalizations anymore," he said. "They've become too lame.

"The donations pour in, and the favors are doled out, and of course everybody says it's all just a big coincidence. It's a very suspicious pattern of giving. Jim Doyle has held statewide elective office since 1990, but the utilities were never interested in his political fortunes until he was in a position to control the Public Service Commission. Then all of the sudden, he sees a 17-fold increase."

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