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TECO's money favors the GOP

A company spokesman defended the donations, noting that Republicans "hold the reins of power."

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000


To federal environmental regulators, Tampa Electric Co. is known as the dirtiest air polluter among the state's utilities.

But to Florida politicians, TECO is the most generous campaign contributor among the state's utilities.

Over the past six months, TECO's parent company, TECO Energy, has given more than $78,000 to Florida's Republican Party, far more than any other electric utility in the state.

TECO Energy also gave money to the state Democratic Party, but only $4,500. The company also passed out $17,000 to 35 Republican candidates, while giving $7,500 to 15 Democratic candidates.

Initially, a TECO spokeswoman said the company donates 60 percent of its campaign contributions to Republicans and 40 percent to Democrats. But after a reporter pointed out that the most recent numbers tell a different story, TECO spokesman Mitch Lubitz said Monday that the company gave more to Republicans because they "hold the reins of power."

Republicans occupy a majority of the seats in the Legislature, as well as the Governor's Mansion.

"It's just a matter of reality," Lubitz said. The company gives "to political candidates and parties that share our business concerns."

During the six-month period from September to February, TECO was negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency over whether it had repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act. When negotiations broke down, the EPA, led by Carol Browner, a close ally of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, sued the company in November.

A month later, TECO cut a deal with the state Department of Environmental Protection, headed up by David Struhs, an appointee of Gov. Jeb Bush, whose brother, George W. Bush, is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

The deal with the DEP called for TECO to spend $1-billion to shut down some of its coal-burning plants, switch others over to cleaner natural gas, install experimental anti-pollution equipment on some parts of its plants and help pay for a study of air pollution's effects on the bay, all by 2010.

EPA officials were surprised to learn DEP was negotiating with TECO behind their backs. They criticized the state deal because the environmental cleanup hinged on whether TECO could pass the cost along to its customers.

Last week, TECO settled with the EPA. The goals of the deal are similar to the DEP agreement, but the settlements differ in several key areas. For instance, the EPA deal says the company must clean up its power plants even if it cannot pass the cost along to its 550,000 customers.

Although the federal settlement supersedes the deal with the state, TECO still will go before the Public Service Commission in May to pursue a rate increase to pay for cleanup.

Lubitz said TECO's big donations to the state GOP had nothing to do with the deal with the DEP.

"We are traditionally very active, and this is just a continuation of our active role," he said. DEP officials did not return a call seeking comment.

TECO's largest donations of the six-month period occurred before the EPA sued. TECO gave the state Republican Party $25,000 on Sept. 22, followed by $10,000 eight days later and another $20,000 three weeks after that. Between the EPA's suit being filed Nov. 3 and the DEP settlement Dec. 7, the company made no contributions to the state GOP.

All told, TECO Energy gave the state GOP more than $151,000 last year, while giving Democrats just $7,000. In 1998 the company gave the state Republican Party $168,000, while giving the Democratic Party $121,000. The money for those donations did not come from utility customers, Lubitz said.

Many TECO board members and officers give to political campaigns, too. During the six months of talks with the EPA, chairman H.L. Culbreath, who is still on the board of directors, gave $5,000 to the state GOP on Nov. 22.

TECO's stable of lobbyists for the legislative session that begins today includes former DEP Secretary Virginia Wetherell, former Democratic House Speaker James Harold Thompson and former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade.

TECO Energy governmental affairs vice president Charles O. Hinson III said the company was not trying to pass any particular bill, other than backing a review of the state's 20-year-old laws on utility regulation.

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