After turning a small profit by investing in energy companies under his jurisdiction in the past few years, new House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) is considering creating a blind trust to hold his investments.
“He is looking into how to put it together,” said Barton spokeswoman Samantha Jordan, though she added that Barton “doesn’t plan to make any changes in his investments as chairman.”
Barton’s decision to consider a blind trust comes a week after he was formally named to succeed Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) at the helm of the House panel that has more jurisdiction over U.S. industry than any other committee.
During his four years as chairman of the powerful panel’s energy subcommittee, Barton made several investments in companies with business before him.
In October 2002, Barton bought $3,500 worth of shares in TXU Corp. and Reliant Resources, investments that have since tripled in value to a total of $12,750.
However, Barton also lost thousands of dollars by scooping up shares of Enron Corp. in 2001 as the ill-fated company veered into bankruptcy, according to Barton’s personal financial statements.
As chairman of the energy subcommittee, Barton has been one of the most influential lawmakers on industry policy and was among a handful of authors of the GOP’s landmark energy bill that is stalled on Capitol Hill.
To be sure, it is perfectly legal for Members of Congress — even committee chairmen — to hold financial stakes in companies that have business before their committees.
In fact, the architects of the modern system of Congressional committees wanted lawmakers with expertise to serve on panels that oversaw those industries.
“Rather than having people without any particular interest, you wanted farmers who could talk with some expertise about the impact of agriculture policy to serve on the Agriculture Committee,” said Meredith McGehee, a public-interest advocate.
Still, Barton is one of the few committee chairmen to hold investments that are so directly affected by legislation from his panel.
Others include Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Resources Committee, who owns a half-million-dollar ranch, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who owned a Texaco oil and gas lease in Gregg County, Texas, while he served as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources panel.
By and large, most committee chairmen avoid investing in companies they oversee. Or, like one of Barton’s predecessors at the Energy and Commerce panel, former Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), they set up blind trusts.
Though Barton’s energy investments did not receive much attention when he chaired the energy subcommittee, a growing number of his political opponents and public-interest advocates have taken aim at the stock holdings now that he has been promoted to the helm of the full Energy and Commerce Committee.
“It really does raise the appearance of a conflict of interest if a powerful committee chairman owns stock in a company that could benefit significantly by his or her actions,” said Frank O’Donnell, head of Clean Air Trust and a leading critic of Barton.
“It looks bad,” added McGehee. “He would be better served if he diversified his portfolio or put his energy holdings in a blind trust.”
Another reason that Barton’s investments have been largely overlooked is because he usually trades stock only a couple of times per year and his holdings are rather small, mostly in the $1,000 to $15,000 range.
“He’s never been highly involved in the stock market,” said Barton spokeswoman Jordan. “The majority of his investments were purchased before he was a Member of Congress.”
During the four years that he held the gavel at the energy subpanel, his financial disclosure form shows, he has owned between $22,000 and $141,000 in companies under his jurisdiction.
After selling a $2,533 stake in Wal-Mart and buying up shares of TXU and Reliant, Barton held between $4,500 and $19,500 in energy and telecommunications companies at the end of 2002, the most recent year for which information is available. Financial disclosure forms for 2003 will be available this spring.
Shares of TXU and Reliant have risen sharply since Barton invested in the companies 18 months ago.
In October 2002, Barton purchased $1,900 worth of stock in the coal-burning electricity utility TXU, as well as $1,600 in energy-trader Reliant as shares of both companies neared their all-time lows.
At the time, Barton was in the middle of negotiations with the Senate to pump new life into the energy bill. Soon after Barton’s purchases, shares of both stocks rebounded.
Shares of Reliant ended trading Monday at $7.89 per share, up four-fold since Barton purchased the stock. TXU has more than doubled over the same period, closing Monday at $28.29.
Together, Barton’s $3,500 investment in Reliant and TXU has jumped to $12,750, up 264 percent.
Not all of Barton’s stock picks have been so lucky.
Barton lost thousands of dollars by gobbling up shares of Enron in the fall of 2001 as the once-high-flying energy concern fell to earth.
After spending much of the year pushing for legislation to deregulate the electricity marketplace, Barton bought more than $1,000 in Enron stock when the price slid to $30 in early October 2001.
Two weeks later, when shares tumbled to $20 per share — nearly a quarter of its all-time high — Barton pumped another $1,000 into the doomed company.
Barton purchased thousands of additional shares in Enron when the stock price fell below $10. The investment fizzled. A few weeks later, Enron filed the second largest bankruptcy claim in U.S. history.
According to his financial disclosure form, Barton sold most of his Enron holdings for $895 on Dec. 21, 2001 — when the stock was worth pennies.
If the stock had rebounded to match its high of $90 a share, as Barton hoped, the investment would have generated about $135,000 — a bit less than his Congressional salary.
“I thought I could make some money,” Barton said at the time. “I made a bad decision.”