HOT lanes boosted by illegal campaign contributions
By Monty Taylor
Transurban, an Australia-based company that is building and will operate the beltway high occupancy toll lanes, revealed this week that they illegally contributed over $170,000 to electoral campaigns throughout Virginia over the last three years.
“This absolutely doesn't look good. ... This is very embarrassing to us,” said Michal Kulper, executive vice president of Transurban.
The firm's contributions, which date back to 2005, were in violation of federal election laws which restrict donations from foreign based companies and foreign nationals. The company contributed to numerous elections, giving $12,500 to House Majority Leader William Howell, $5,000 to Gerry Connolly and numerous contributions to local delegates including Tom Rust and Chap Petersen.
“The check they sent me said 'Transurban USA' on it,” said Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Springfield), whose campaign received $6,000 from the company.
Saslaw and other politicians were notified that the donations were illegal by Transurban itself, and the company has also notified the Federal Election Commission. According to Transurban, the company didn't realize the donations were illegal until early this year, after consultation with a lobbying firm.
According to Kulper, the company launched an internal investigation of the matter before notifying the FEC and donation recipients.
“We hope the FEC will take into account that we voluntarily disclosed this information. ... this was an inadvertent breach,” he said.
The violations mainly have to do with accounting - if Transurban kept its U.S. revenues separate from foreign ones, and foreign nationals weren't involved in the contribution process, many of the contributions would have been legal.
“Transurban USA was unaware of these requirements at that time,” reads the letter sent to affected politicians.
Transurban has asked candidates to return the money and will donate the returned money to Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, a children's charity.
According to Saslaw, aside from the accounting problems there's nothing unusual about Transurban's donations to campaigns.
“Is there a difference between getting money from them and any federal contractor? Is there a difference between contributions from them and the housing industry?” Saslaw asked, adding that he wasn't previously aware of the restrictions on donations from foreign sources.
“I don't think there's anyone alive who knew about that law,” Saslaw said.
© 2008, The Fairfax Times: www.www.fairfaxtimes.com
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