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Energizing Hunter

There's a local connection to the Enron scandal. Republican Duncan Hunter is among 186 lawmakers in the House of Representatives who took campaign contributions from the toppled energy giant between 1989 and 2002, according to federal disclosure reports. He’s the only member of San Diego’s congressional delegation to have benefited from Enron’s largess, which totals $1.13 million—and triggered widespread calls for campaign finance reform.

Most of the lawmakers who took money from Enron—Hunter included—are Republican, and most voted in favor of the Bush energy plan last August that was reportedly drafted with Enron’s input. In January, Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat, released a report that charged Enron benefited in at least 17 provisions of the president’s plan.

House Republicans had vigorously opposed proposed legislation to crack down on the flow of special-interest money pouring into the political process. In February, the House approved campaign finance reform legislation that would ban “soft” money (unlimited campaign contributions to political parties) and prevent so-called “issue” ads by special-interest groups that mention a candidate and run just before an election. Hunter and most of his fellow Republicans voted no.

The Senate passed its own version of the bill in March and sent it to President Bush, who signed it. Key elements include banning the acceptance of soft money by the national parties and restrictions on thinly veiled campaign commercials by outside groups 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election.

Bill Allison, managing editor of reports issued by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.–based watchdog, says that since the Enron scandal blew up, many of the congressmen who received money from the company returned it. Or they donated it to a fund for Enron employees who lost their 401(k) retirement accounts. Hunter, however, was not among them, at least as of the latest federal filing, dated February 13.

Contacted by San Diego Magazine about the $500 Enron gave Hunter just before the 2000 election, Bruce Young, the congressman’s longtime campaign treasurer, says he “didn’t even remember getting it.” But he vowed to investigate. “I’ll talk to Duncan,” he says, “and I’m sure he’ll contribute it to the [former] employees.”

But that won’t get Hunter or his buddies off the hook with Allison. “It’s nice to see them give it to some of the people who have been hurt by the Enron collapse,” he says, “but giving back the money after the fact doesn’t make them ethically pure. It would have been much better had they not taken the money in the first place and exercised a little bit of regulatory oversight. If you rob a bank and then give the money back, well, you’ve still robbed the bank.”

Hunter, incidentally, made the Center for Responsive Politics’ “top recipients” list for the current 2002 election cycle. He leads in the “miscellaneous defense” category, which includes defense research and development, naval shipbuilders, manufacturers of tanks and special military vehicles, and various other defense-related services.

“Members of the House and Senate Armed Services and Defense Appropriations Committees are prime targets for donations from this sector,” according to the center’s Web site. Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, received a total of $36,450, including $10,250 from General Dynamics. He also got huge wads of cash from defense electronics ($24,445) and defense aerospace ($23,750) industries.

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