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New Bush Tie to Enron
White House lawyer got 35G while in Tex.
By BOB PORT
Daily News Staff Writer
Yet another White House official has a long history with Enron.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who has been mentioned as a possible Bush nominee for the Supreme Court, received more than $100,000 in political contributions from the energy industry in recent years as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
Enron and Enron's law firm were Gonzales' biggest contributors in his 2000 judicial election, giving $35,450. Gonzales also worked for Enron's law firm from 1982 through 1992.
In addition, Gonzales served as special counsel to the host committee for a 1990 world economic summit held in Houston. Former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was chairman of that committee.
Now Gonzales is the White House advocate for keeping secret the roster of people who helped Vice President Cheney devise the administration's energy policy.
Congress plans to go to court to force the release of that information. When the White House position is tested there, Gonzales will be fighting a precedent-setting case.
"I think the administration will lose in court if it goes that far," said Philip Schiliro, chief of staff for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who started the congressional inquiries.
White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said, "We're very confident of our position."
Gonzales, 45, a Harvard Law School graduate, has grown to become one of the President's most trusted advisers.
As governor, George W. Bush chose him to be general counsel. In 1997, Bush named him Texas secretary of state, and two years later appointed him to a vacancy on the state's high court.
Texas elects judges. Within two weeks of being sworn in as a justice, Gonzales got his first $5,000 campaign check from Vinson & Elkins, the Houston law firm that has Enron as its biggest client and represents Haliburton, the energy services company where Cheney used to work.
In May 2000, Gonzales was author of a state Supreme Court opinion that handed the energy industry one of its biggest Texas legal victories in recent history.
In Bernal vs. Southwestern Refining, Texas justices, voting 6-3, threw out a class-action suit by 885 Corpus Christi, Tex., homeowners whose families were harmed and property damaged by heat, smoke and toxic fumes in a 1994 refinery tank explosion.
Texas law gives lower courts final say whether a lawsuit qualifies as a group action. Such suits let average people pool resources to hire lawyers and experts.
But Gonzales said the Texas Supreme Court could take over the Corpus Christi case on a technicality.
"We were just outright flabbergasted," said William Bonilla, the Corpus Christi lawyer who started the suit. "It was just grossly unfair, and these people, to this day, haven't gotten a dime."
Bonilla said Gonzales' opinion "blocks any plaintiffs from bringing a personal injury claim as a class action in Texas." He said Gonzales, given his history with V&E, Enron and Haliburton, should have recused himself.
"I felt that to a certain extent it was an intellectually dishonest opinion," said Houston attorney Andres Pereira, who argued the case in Austin for the damaged residents.
The day the ruling was released, Gonzales' campaign treasury recorded a check from the Petroleum Club — a private oilman's business club in Midland, Tex. — for refreshments at a reception.
All told, Gonzales' campaign amassed $102,838 from energy interests, according to the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. Gonzales built such a big war chest — $844,000 from mostly lawyers, lobbyists and oilmen — he still had $45,000 unspent last year.
While Enron and energy figured heavily in Gonzales' career, the White House insists it's unfair to suggest this could color his advice.
"He always puts the law first," said Womack. "Judge Gonzales is a very accomplished attorney."
Gonzales has publicly supported reform of elections for judges in Texas, she said, adding, "Obviously, those who lost their case are going to be critical."
Original Publication Date: 2/10/02
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