Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Campaign Seeks Cash from Westar ; Outreach from Brownback Operative Comes amid Ongoing Rate Case

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Campaign Seeks Cash from Westar ; Outreach from Brownback Operative Comes amid Ongoing Rate Case

Article excerpt

Gov. Sam Brownback's campaign approached a Westar Energy official for cash earlier this month as part of an ongoing effort to pay down debt that comes as the utility seeks a $152 million rate increase, records show.

Documents obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal show a Brownback campaign operative contacted Westar Energy executive Mark Schreiber more than a week ago seeking help retiring debt left over from the governor's re-election campaign last year.

The campaign has reached out to a number of individuals, but the contact with Schreiber, who is Westar's government affairs vice president, takes place amid a request to hike rates to pay for environmental upgrades, repairs at the company's nuclear plant and efforts to reduce storm-related outages.

The Kansas Corporation Commission is set to rule this fall on the request from the Topeka-based company that has about 700,000 customers. The KCC is made up of three commissioners who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

If the request is approved, about $93 million would be raised from residential customers -- amounting to a 12.1-percent increase. The change also would include raising the customer charge for residential accounts by $3 each of the next five years, for an increase from $12 per month currently to $27 per month by October 2019.

Schreiber himself hasn't donated significant amounts of money to Brownback. A search of campaign finance data maintained by the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission indicates Schreiber gave $250 to Brownback's campaign in 2010 and $200 in 2013.

But the Westar Energy Employees PAC has made larger, more frequent donations to the governor's campaign. The political action committee has given $5,500 since 2009. The most recent donation, of $2,000, came in October 2014.

Asked about the campaign's decision to approach the Westar official, Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said: "The Governor's office does not influence the operations or decision-making process of the Kansas Corporation Commission, which is an independent commission."

Since 2003, Westar has followed a policy that prohibits direct corporate donations to political candidates. The company and multiple executives were hit with fines stemming from Congressional donations in the 2002 election cycle.

Instead, an employee-controlled political action committee was established, Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said. Penzig acknowledged that Schreiber received the Brownback campaign request and that it has been referred to the Westar Employees' PAC.

"Our PAC board has not met to make a decision on that yet," Penzig said.

Westar's executive team isn't allowed to serve on the PAC board, Penzig said. Schreiber acts as an advisor to the board, she said, adding that he can give the PAC context as to how a politician has voted on items that affect Westar's business. …

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