Four years after oil accident, BP giving cash to Alabama politicians
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Feb 23, 2014 | 5749 views |  0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Nearly four years after an oil spill that killed an entire summer of tourism along the Gulf coast, the employee PAC for the oil company BP is dipping its toes in Alabama’s political waters again.

A BP employee PAC, run by officials of BP, gave political contributions to Gov. Robert Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and six other members of the state Legislature in the two weeks after Christmas.

Meanwhile, federal records show that the employee-funded BP Corporation North America PAC has donated to the campaigns of both of Alabama's U.S. senators since the oil spill, as well as four of Alabama's seven House members — though one of the recipients, Rep. Bradley Byrne, immediately returned the money.

The donations, in amounts between $500 and $3,000, are tiny compared to the money given by some other PACs and corporations. But they may be a sign that politicians once again feel it's safe to be connected to BP, a company that became politically radioactive in the months after the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig accident that spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

"At this point, I don't think it's going to give anybody a black eye," said Glen Browder, a former congressman and emeritus political science professor at Jacksonville State University.

A growing presence

State records show that in the last week of December and the first week of January a BP employee PAC gave $1,000 to the re-election campaign of Gov. Robert Bentley. It gave $2,000, in two payments, to the campaign of House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn.

The PAC also gave $500 each to the six other lawmakers:

— Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur

— Senate Minority Leader Vivian Figures, D-Mobile

— Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur

— Rep. Ed Henry, R-Decatur

— Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton

— Sen Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

The contributions, reported on campaign forms as donations from “BP PAC” or “BP North American Employee PAC” come from a Houston address that is also a corporate headquarters for the oil company. The PAC appears to be the the same as, or closely related to, the BP Corporation North America Inc. PAC, which is also run from the oil company’s Houston headquarters.

The BP Corporation North America PAC’s by-laws, available on the PAC’s website, indicate that the PAC is funded by voluntary contributions from the oil company’s employees. It’s run by officers appointed by the president and vice president of BP, according to the by-laws.

The PAC appears to be ramping up its contributions as the 2014 election approaches. The PAC gave $208,000 to federal candidates nationwide in 2013, according to federal documents. That’s compared to $141,500 in 2012, $70,500 in 2011 and just $8,000 in 2010, the year of the oil spill.

Asked for comment on the donations, BP responded with a prepared statement from spokesman Scott Dean, who said that all the contributions were in accordance with state and U.S. law, and that BP "supports more than 2,600 jobs" in the state.

"Our employees are keenly interested in energy and business issues in Alabama and other states," Dean wrote in an email. "So it is only natural for them to be politically active and participate in the voluntary BP political action committee."

‘Proud to have them’

“It’s from the employees, not the company,” Bentley spokeswoman Rebekah Mason said of the PAC’s contribution to Bentley.

The governor's best-known opponent, Democrat and former Congressman Parker Griffith, declined to comment on Bentley's BP-related money.

Griffith is “focused on education, jobs and health care," said Griffith campaign spokesman Rick Lewis. "He doesn't want to focus on the governor's contributions right now.”

Stacy Lee George, one of Bentley’s opponents for the Republican nomination, said donations from either the company or its employees are inappropriate as long as the state is still hoping for settlement money from BP.

“It’s a conflict of interest,” he said.

Attempts to reach two other Bentley opponents, Democrat Kevin Bass and Republican Bob Starkey, late last week were unsuccessful.

Figures, the only Democrat who got a BP donation — and the only BP donation recipient from a Gulf Coast county — said she had no idea why BP gave her money.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't make promises, and I call them like I see them."

She said she often encounters representatives of BP, and couldn't recall whether she'd asked them for a contribution.

Attempts to reach Johnson and Collins for comment last week were unsuccessful. But many of the lawmakers who did speak to The Star said they had no problem with ties to the company or its employees.

"BP, they're a good corporate citizen," said Hubbard, the House speaker. "Obviously, everybody knows about the oil spill. It was an accident and unfortunate, but I don't believe anybody can say that BP hasn't gone above and beyond to make reparations."

For others, BP-as-oil-company is only part of the picture. The company operates a chemical plant with hundreds of employees in Decatur, nearly 300 miles from the Gulf.

"It's one of the largest employers in my district," said Henry, the Decatur representative. "If you look, I've got contributions from several manufacturers across the state and north Alabama. I think the state should have a business-friendly strategy."

Hammon, another Decatur representative, agreed.

"We're proud to have them in our community," he said. "They're a good corporate citizen."

Orr, the Decatur senator, said the company brought jobs to the area.

"They've been a good corporate citizen of our district," he said.

Accepted or returned

Federal records show that the BP Corporation North America PAC has also given donations to a majority of Alabama's members of Congress in 2013. Among those contributions were:

— $3,000 to Sen. Jeff Sessions

— $2,000 to Sen. Richard Shelby

— $1,000 to Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham

— $1,000 to Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville

— $1,000 to Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery

BP also tried to give $1,000 to Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, a few days after he won a special election for his House seat. His press secretary says he returned it immediately.

"The contribution in question was unsolicited, immediately returned and never deposited," Byrne communications director Jack Pandol wrote in an email.

The PAC also contributed to Sewell and Shelby in 2012, and gave Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, $3,000 toward his 2012 re-election campaign. The BP Employee PAC website has also posted the text of a thank-you note from Bachus, which appears to be from a form letter sent to donors.

Attempts to reach Bachus for comment were unsuccessful. So were attempts to reach Sewell and Roby.

Both of Alabama’s U.S. senators, Sessions and Shelby, responded to The Star's questions about BP with prepared statements.

“Senator Sessions is resolutely committed to serving the people of Alabama and the country," wrote Sessions aide Stephen Miller in a statement emailed by Sessions’ staff. "He does not answer to special interests.”

"Individuals and businesses across the spectrum contribute to Sen. Shelby… based (on) his record, not the other way around," Shelby aide Jonathan Graffeo wrote.

Shelby isn't up for re-election this year. The Feb. 7 major-party election filing deadline found Sessions running unopposed by Democrats or fellow Republicans, though he could still face an independent challenger.

Brooks, the House member whose district covers the far north of the state, was quick to point out that the BP Decatur chemical plant "employs 476 people in the district."

"BP is a good corporate citizen in the Tennessee Valley," Brooks said in a telephone interview.

Creating an enemy

Browder, the political scientist, said that despite any lingering resentment Alabamians may feel about the oil spill, taking the money may be only a minimal political risk.

"I don't think it's going to taint them," he said.

One reason the donations won't hurt, he said, is because they're relatively small — at least compared to the other donations in this election cycle.

Three years ago, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill to revamp the state’s campaign finance law, a bill that, among other things, created a searchable online database of contributions to replace the state’s old archive of PDFs, many of them handwritten. But last year, lawmakers also voted to remove the cap on corporate campaign contributions.

The result is that voters are now able to see massive donations pouring into campaigns from PACs and other donors. The Alabama Education Association’s PAC has written at least three checks for $150,000 to candidates for the 2014 election, and checks for $25,000 or more are a regular occurrence. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians has made multiple donations in the $80,000-to-$100,000 range to PACS. A Louisiana oil-industry magnate gave Bentley’s campaign $100,000 after meeting the governor last year.

Browder said the high price tags of political races now are “changing the political landscape.” Despite Byrne’s decision to return his BP contribution, Browder said most candidates would find it hard to give the money back.

“First of all, they need the money,” he said. “And second, you don’t want to do something that will create an enemy.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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