By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008
RICHMOND, July 2 -- A company involved in building the express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway violated federal election law when it contributed $172,000 to 90 campaigns in Virginia over the past three years, company officials said Wednesday.
Officials at Transurban, a U.S. subsidiary of an Australian company, said they should not have made the donations, because federal law forbids contributions from foreign companies and foreign nationals.
"We made an honest mistake," said Michael Kulper, Transurban executive vice president. "We are genuinely concerned and upset about it."
The company sent letters Wednesday to every candidate and political action committee it has contributed to in Virginia, asking for the money to be returned. Many did not know about the problem when they were contacted late Wednesday.
Recipients were Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), dozens of state senators and delegates, the three candidates for governor next year and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who is running for Congress.
"I was not aware of it," Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) said. Hamilton said that a member of his staff monitors his campaign contributions and that he does not track them himself. But he added that if the company asks for its $1,500 contribution back, he will send it.
Charlie Kelly, director of Kaine's political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward, said any out-of-compliance contributions will be returned immediately. Kaine and Moving Virginia Forward received $9,500. "It was our belief that Transurban USA's contributions were made in compliance with state and federal law at the time they were made. We received contributions from a U.S. company through U.S. representatives. As such, we had no reason to question the contributions," Kelly said. "We were disappointed to learn of this issue . . . but we appreciate Transurban's admission that no one receiving these contributions could have been aware of their noncompliance."
Transurban has invested $500 million in two projects in Virginia: helping build and maintain high-occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway and maintaining the Richmond-area Pocahontas Parkway toll road. It expects to finalize a third project to create toll lanes on interstates 95 and 395 between the 14th Street bridge and Stafford County. Transurban is working with a second company, Fluor Enterprises, on the Beltway, 95 and 395 projects.
The projects were negotiated through the Virginia Department of Transportation and Commonwealth Transportation Board. But the company has lobbied legislators on a number of bills in recent years.
Company officials were in Richmond on Wednesday to apologize to Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer. "We've taken the matter under review and consideration," Homer said after the meeting.
The General Assembly will return to Richmond on Wednesday to continue a special session on transportation. Many legislators, primarily House Republicans, want to encourage more public-private partnerships, such as the Beltway project, in which companies pay for projects on roads and bridges in return for the right to collect tolls.
"We certainly hope this doesn't negatively impact on the process," said G. Paul Nardo, chief of staff to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).
Howell's political action committee, Dominion Leadership Trust, received $12,500, the most of any group or individual, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Nardo said Howell will cooperate with the company and return the money.
Transurban officials are asking those who received donations to return them. Kulper said the money will be donated to the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, which provides help to abused and neglected children in court. Company officials said they discovered the violations in February and began an internal review. In recent weeks, they contacted the Federal Election Commission, which is looking into the problem and could fine the company.