A year after spill, BP gives political contributions to Republican leaders

Nearly a year after its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP has broken a moratorium on political giving by making contributions to Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders.

BP Corp. North America gave $5,000 contributions to Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) through its political action committee, according to a campaign finance report filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The political contributions are the first from the company since a BP well exploded on April 20, 2010, spilling nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

A spokesman for BP emphasized the contributions came from a political committee funded by employees and not from the company’s general treasury.

“Our employee PAC contributions are a matter of public record and speak for themselves,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman for the company. 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) received $1,000 and $5,000 contributions, respectively, from BP North America’s PAC. Upton told The Hill late Tuesday he is not accepting the contribution and will return it to BP.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee were also recipients, each accepting $5,000.

The only Democrat to receive a donation was Rep. Pete Visclosky (Ind.), who received $3,000 on March 22.

The FEC report came at an awkward time for lawmakers, just a day before the one-year anniversary of the oil-spill disaster that crippled local economies along the Gulf Coast.

Members of Congress haven’t accepted contributions from BP since early April of last year, when Visclosky and Rep. Cynthia 
Lummis (R-Wyo.) accepted $1,000 contributions, according to fundraising reports filed by the PAC.

Candidates in tight races last year declined to accept contributions from BP after the disaster.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Antonio, Texas, who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, declined to cash a check from BP North America’s PAC given a month after the spill, according to a fundraising report posted in August.

The money rejected by Gonzalez was the only attempted contribution to a member of Congress made by BP’s PAC since the spill — until last month, public reports show.

BP stopped making contributions to members of Congress for most of last year, focusing instead on state-level candidates, many from conservative inland areas of the country.

Even so, a substantial number of state-level candidates declined cash contributions from BP North America, including Jason Nelson, who ran for state representative as a “common-sense conservative” in Oklahoma, an oil-rich state. Nelson never cashed a check from October of last year, according to a fundraising report posted last month.

Stephen Dampier, a lawyer for a litigation group representing the Gulf Coast residents, said it’s wrong for BP to resume political giving when facing legal claims.

“It could certainly create the wrong impression in the minds of many until those harmed by the spill have been fully compensated and the Gulf’s natural resources have been fully restored,” Dampier said.

“It would seem — given all the problems created — that the resumption is premature and socially irresponsible,” he said of the contributions.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were happy to accept donations from BP’s PAC before the accident.

Reps. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and John Culberson (R-Texas) and former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) accepted $1,000 contributions in the weeks before the spill, according to public records.

BP’s political fund reported a spate of uncashed contributions to lawmakers a month after the accident, while the company was under attack for what critics called a slow and misleading response.

In May of 2010, BP’s PAC reported uncashed contributions to Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), the former ranking Republican member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The company quickly became a target of widespread public scorn, which reached a peak after BP CEO Tony Hayward spent a weekend at a yacht race in the midst of the disaster.

BP went into an all-out effort to repair its tarnished image.

It issued a public apology and agreed to a deal with President Obama to set up a $20 billion escrow account to compensate victims. Hayward resigned as chief executive.

The Democratic National Committee launched a website in July to underline the efforts of GOP lawmakers to defend the company from criticism. Democrats highlighted comments by Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who called the Gulf oil-spill victims relief program a “slush fund.”

Senate Democrats pushed legislation lifting the cap on liability for companies that cause environmental disasters.

GOP House lawmakers found themselves on the defensive after Barton apologized to Hayward during a congressional hearing for what he called a “shakedown” of the oil giant.

Public anger at BP has subsided since it capped the damaged well in August. Voters have shifted their attention to other controversies, such as the conflict in Libya and rising gas prices.

This post initially contained incorrect contribution amount for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

This story was updated on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 6:07 p.m.