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Rep. Bass Faces New Energy Questions

In what must feel like a nasty case of déjà vu, Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) is already fending off the same opponent he barely beat last year and new documents are reopening the same campaign controversy that nearly derailed his election last fall.

Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, who lost to Bass by just 1.5 points in 2010, is back in the ring. And new questions have arisen in a controversy involving Bass’ close ties to and investments in the biomass industry.

Bass strenuously denied allegations during the 2010 race that he had facilitated a 2006 meeting between then-Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Steven Walker, the CEO of a New Hampshire biomass firm known as New England Wood Pellet. Walker is married to Bass’ niece.

Bass also faced questions during the campaign about his stock holdings in that company, worth about $500,000, and about the timing of his purchase.

But a letter obtained by Roll Call shows that in 2006, during his first stint as a Congressman, Bass made a direct invitation to Bodman to come to New Hampshire and suggested “a schedule that would highlight the contributions” of the state’s  alternative energy firms. The letter also touted Bass’ legislative work to promote alternative fuels.

Bass campaign adviser Scott Tranchemontagne said in an email that the letter proves only that Bass was attempting to promote alternative energy “in general,” not trying to get favorable treatment for New England Wood Pellet. He added that “dozens of other professionals from various alternative energy companies” met with Bodman when he traveled to New Hampshire in 2006.

“There is no conflict of interest,” said Tranchemontagne. “Charlie Bass has strongly and openly supported the advancement of alternative energies across many fields — wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and biomass — for many years before and between his times in Congress. His financial investments in NE Wood Pellet occurred in January 2007, after he left Congress.”

Still, the letter is likely to reignite the controversy over Bass’ ties to the company. Democrats and their allies are already hammering Bass with radio and TV ads on other issues. He is a top target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as he is one of 14 House Republicans in a district won by both President Barack Obama and by 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). 

Bass has also fielded some bad press recently in New Hampshire over his ties to another biomass company, Laidlaw Energy Group Inc., which was temporarily barred from trading this month by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC’s 10-day suspension, which cited Laidlaw and about a dozen other similar companies for reporting irregularities, ended on June 20.

When the Concord Monitor first looked into the SEC suspension order, Bass was listed as a senior adviser and nonvoting board member for Laidlaw on both the company’s website and on his own, the paper reported earlier this month.

 But Bass severed ties with Laidlaw upon his election to Congress, both Laidlaw CEO Michael Bartoszek and a Bass aide told Roll Call. The SEC order stemmed from unintentional “outdated information that appeared on our website and blog that we have since removed,” Bartoszek said in an email.

 The Congressman’s ex-chief of staff, Darwin Cusack, now works for Laidlaw as its political and public relations adviser. Bass began serving in the House in 1995 and was defeated for re-election in 2006;  he won a second stint in the House in 2010. In the interim, he also earned $94,250 as a consultant to Laidlaw Berlin BioPower, a former Laidlaw Energy Group affiliate, public records show.

 Bass is hardly the only Member of Congress with controversial stock holdings or private-sector ties. As recently released personal financial disclosure reports attest, dozens of lawmakers invest in companies that fall under the jurisdiction of their committees, and some have dropped holdings that attracted bad press. Several Members dumped stock in BP and Transocean in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year, the Center for Responsive Politics recently reported.

 Nor is there any prohibition on such investments. “Members of Congress are allowed to hold shares of common stocks, even if the companies in which they are investing give them campaign money, or lobby Congress, or otherwise do business before committees that have jurisdiction over them,” noted Dave Levinthal, communications director for CRP.

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