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AUSTIN - Texas politicians, mostly Republican, received more than $ 144,000 in campaign contributions for the 1998 elections from Koch Industries - a Kansas-based company indicted by a federal grand jury this week on allegations the company illegally released cancer-causing pollutants into the air around Corpus Christi.
Environmentalists and Democrats have complained that the situation with Koch is symptomatic of a broader problem in Texas - campaign contributions from the petrochemical industry have resulted in slack environmental enforcement by the state.
The issue is particularly keen for Gov. George W. Bush, who is under attack in the presidential race from Democrat Al Gore as being weak on environmental polluters.
The Republican candidate received $ 32,200 from Koch Industries and officials associated with the company in the presidential election and company-affiliated contributions to the national Republican Party have totaled $ 325,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Since 1995, Koch has put $ 28,500 into Bush's state political account, according to Texans for Public Justice.
"It's a lot cheaper to invest in a politician's campaign than it is to clean up their act," said Texans for Public Justice Research Director Andrew Wheat. "It's pennies on the dollar."
But Koch spokesman Jay Rosser said the company will be proven innocent of the federal charges. Rosser said Koch-related campaign contributions are given to politicians based on their belief in a free market, not based on political parties.
"Anybody who takes the time to understand our environmental record will have a better understanding of our company," Rosser said. "There are a number of environmental achievements and safety achievements that we have accomplished in recent years."
Rosser noted that Koch has invested $ 28 million to reduce the sulfur content of gasoline delivered to Austin to help keep the city in compliance with clean air standards. Rosser said the action was taken five years ahead of schedule.
A federal grand jury on Thursday accused Koch and four managers in a 97-count indictment of allowing illegal benzene emissions from a Corpus Christi refinery in 1995 and then covering up the problem in meetings with state regulators.
Republicans have accused the U.S. Justice Department of playing politics with the case to hurt Bush's presidential bid.
And despite the campaign contributions to Bush, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission officials noted that they helped the Justice Department bring the case against Koch.
"The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission takes very seriously its responsibility to enforce all environmental laws to protect public health and the environment," commission executive director Jeff Saitas said in a statement.
However, at the time the Koch case was first developing, environmentalists raised questions about the impartiality of Bush's original appointments to the state environmental agency.
Bush's original chairman was Barry McBee, a former aide to Bush's father, President Bush, in the White House. McBee also was the deputy commissioner of agriculture in Texas. He had been criticized by environmentalists and farmworker groups for the department's record on pesticides.
Bush's other 1995 appointees were Ralph Marquez of Texas City, a former chemical engineer for the Monsanto Co., and John Baker of Temple, who was the agricultural adviser to EPA director William K. Reilly under Bush's father.
Koch Industries and the Koch family are no strangers to political controversy.
Fred Koch, the company's founder, became wealthy when he discovered a better method of refining oil. He was a staunch anti-communist and was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society in 1958.
Two of Koch's sons, Charles and David, bought out the company in 1983 for $ 1 billion. Ever since then, their brothers Bill and Frederick have repeatedly sued, claiming they were cheated out of their share of the company.
David Koch was the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential nominee in 1980. He donated $ 1.1 million to support his party's presidential nominee, Ed Clark, that year.
Charles and David helped create the conservative group Citizens for a Sound
Economy. They also helped finance the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, which in April issued a report that the environment has improved under Bush.
The Koch brothers also were controversial in 1996 when they helped finance the Economic Education Trust, which gave $ 1.8 million to a Republican organization that allowed GOP candidates to skirt financing limits with issue ads run against their Democratic opponents.
Working with the Koch brothers and the Republican organization was Austin political consultant Kenneth "Buddy" Barfield. Barfield was the 1990 campaign manager of GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams and was an adviser to Land Commissioner David Dewhurst's 1998 campaign.
Texas Attorney General John Cornyn was criticized by his Democratic opponent, Jim Mattox, in the 1998 election for taking $ 5,000 from Koch when the state had a pipeline lawsuit pending against the company.
Cornyn eventually settled the case for $ 35 million, far less than the $ 225 million Koch could have been forced to pay. It is unclear whether Cornyn could have gotten more by going to trial, but environmentalists accused him of selling out in the case.
Republicans Barry Williamson and Carole Keeton Rylander also were criticized for taking campaign contributions from Koch as state railroad commissioners overseeing the petroleum industry. But they also ordered inspections of Koch pipelines in Texas.
Rylander's chief of staff at the railroad commission, John Colyandro, worked as Koch's Austin director of communications for a year before returning to work for Rylander after she was elected state comptroller. Colyandro has since left Rylander's staff again.