Donation Made To DNR Seems Fishy
Written by CBS 5 Green Bay   
Saturday, 11 February 2006 12:35

A utility poised to spend $3.4 billion on an upgrade to the state's power system donated $300,000 to a foundation affiliated with the Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that must review the company's plan, a newspaper reported.

The donation has raised questions about whether the transaction creates a conflict of interest.

Pewaukee-based American Transmission Co. made a $300,000 donation to the National Resources Foundation in December, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Saturday. The foundation is a nonprofit arm of the DNR that handles donations made toward conservation efforts.

The gift has critics questioning whether a private company should create financial ties -- even distant ones -- to the agency that will regulate the company.

Mike McCabe, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, called the arrangement inappropriate.
"I don't think that we should have any state agency in a position where they end up relying financially on companies they need to oversee," he told the Journal Sentinel.

Jeff Jones, spokesman of the Dane County environmental group Saving the Badger Trail, also was suspicious.
"It looks fishy on the surface," Jones said.

American Transmission spokeswoman Rita Hayen denied any impropriety. She said the company is working on hundreds of projects, including upgrading power lines, that would require DNR oversight. But she said the donation won't affect the strict environmental restrictions under which the company has already agreed to operate.

American Transmission is one of several Wisconsin companies involved in Green Tier, a DNR experimental program that offers companies greater flexibility in exchange for an agreement to exceed state environmental standards.

Mark McDermid, who oversees the Green Tier program, said the donation will not affect the department's policies.

"Does it affect the regulatory decisions related to ATC? My answer would be no," McDermid said.

The $300,000 is the largest gift in the foundation's 20-year history, said Charlie Luthin, the foundation's executive director. Before this contribution, he said, his group had never received a gift that approached six figures.

Luthin said foundations like his will become increasingly reliant on corporate donors.

Since environmental programs are having problems getting funded by the state, "What do we do as a society? Do we have friends' groups?" he said. "Or do we let things deteriorate?"

But McCabe remained skeptical.

"If governments start to feel as if they need that money, then the obvious question in the mind of the public is whether they will start to pull punches," he said.
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