Bush visits top contributor for Houston baseball bash

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HOUSTON - He's the six-figure friend - and counting.

Kenneth Lay, head of the Texas-based energy giant Enron Corp., has been the biggest benefactor of George W. Bush's political career. Lay and his employees have donated more than $500,000 to Bush's campaigns over the years, and Lay is one of the Bush ''pioneers'' who raised $100,000 for his White House bid.

Bush and Lay, both avid baseball fans, were getting together Friday night to watch the Houston Astros' first home game of the season. Lay threw a private party in the team's new stadium - Enron Field - for Bush, who was general partner of the Texas Rangers before becoming governor.

Bush was flying into Houston Friday just long enough to catch the game from Lay's box.

Lay has been a long-standing political supporter of the Bush family - first the father, former President Bush, and now the son.

''Those two have a mutual self-interest in being buddies,'' said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a campaign-finance advocacy group. ''Bush has always delivered on Kenneth Lay's political pitches.''

In 1994 and 1998, when Bush was elected and re-elected governor, Lay contributed a total of $100,000 to his campaigns, according to the group's analysis. That placed Lay 21st on the list of Bush's biggest individual donors.

As Lay was raising money to land Bush in Austin, he also was lobbying legislators to deregulate the electric industry, into which Enron, a gas company, was expanding.

The governor signed the measure into law last year, clearing Enron's path into previously off-limits markets.

''Enron depends upon government policies to enhance their bottom line in lots of ways,'' McDonald said. ''The company relies upon this kind of access to government.''

Enron's net earnings last year totaled $957 million as Lay steered the company into overseas markets and began to trade oil and gas futures over the Internet.

''He's just a very practical, pragmatic businessperson,'' Rice University political science professor Bob Stein said. ''He's a George Bush kind of Republican.''

As business booms, foreign markets open up and Internet opportunities beckon, Lay wants to make sure he has a like-minded politician in the White House, Stein said.

''He'll want a president who won't tax the Internet or regulate it, and who will open global markets,'' Stein said. ''Those are the three things he cares a lot about - a government that's hands-off business.''

Lay, a longtime Houstonian who became Enron chief executive in 1985, was a friend and supporter of the elder Bush during his successful 1988 presidential campaign. Enron later hired two of President Bush's former Cabinet members - Secretary of State James Baker and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher.

Lay and his wife, Linda, have contributed $76,000 in ''soft money'' to the Republican National State Elections Committee since 1997, federal records show. Soft money is a term describing contributions that fall outside federal bans on corporate and union donations and dollar limits on individual giving.

The Houston couple also gave $5,500 to Americans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee formed by House GOP Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

Both Lay and his wife pitched in the maximum $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign on March 29, 1999.


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