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Pa. lawmaker, Range Resources differ on souring of ties

Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
State Rep. Jesse White, at podium, holds a Municipal Marcellus Co-Op Discussion at Canon-McMillan School Tuesday, March 15, 2011.

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By Brad Bumsted and Timothy Puko

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

An ardent critic of the impact of gas drilling, state Rep. Jesse White of Washington County once enjoyed a cozy relationship with Range Resources Inc. — asking for a corporate plane ride to a Super Bowl and complaining the driller didn't give him enough campaign money, emails between the lawmaker and company show.

In late 2011, White and Range executives in Cecil began battling publicly over Marcellus shale gas drilling. Just last week, Range canceled a meeting with Cecil officials when White said he would attend.

Range says it wants to expose a lawmaker who tried to strong-arm the company and continues to challenge its Pennsylvania business dealings. This month, White urged several agencies to investigate the state's handling of contamination tests at a Range drill site.

White, 34, says the company is organizing a smear campaign against him because he tries to protect constituents in land-control disputes. He suggests Range took his emails out of context or altered them, but would not produce any emails from his archive to prove that. Range stands by the accuracy of the emails it released.

“Just found out I had a few tickets to the game and am looking at our travel arrangements,” White wrote on Jan. 28, 2011, to Range Chief Operating Officer Ray Walker, in emails Range gave the Tribune-Review. “If the Range plane was heading down, any chance we could stowaway in the cargo hold?”

The Steelers lost that 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, to the Green Bay Packers. White, a Democrat elected in 2006, did not travel with Range. He told the Trib he requested the ride as “a joke” and said he did nothing illegal or hypocritical in seeking campaign donations from Range. He said Range earlier invited him to its Super Bowl barbecue in Texas.

Five days after Walker denied his request, White, a former Cecil supervisor, formed Marcellus Municipal Co-Op, suggesting that communities hire a shared official to help enforce land-use rules during the gas rush. White said he worked for months to organize the co-op.

That sparked friction between White and Range.

“It's always been Range's approach to have good relationships with the community, which includes lawmakers,” said company spokesman Matt Pitzarella. “In working with Rep. White, frankly, we became uncomfortable with his tactics and behavior. He went from reasonable to ridiculous. ... He may think his antics are part of some game, but these are real issues, involving real people looking for real solutions, not grandstanding or politicking.”

Relationship soured

As the largest driller in Washington County, Fort Worth-based Range has offices at Southpointe and 545 wells in towns including Cecil, South Fayette and Mt. Pleasant in White's district. Range executives and the company's political action committee from 2009 to May 2010 gave $80,000 to state lawmakers, including $10,000 to White, Pitzarella said.

Pitzarella said Range decided to release the emails and some letters to White — regarding his claims that Range divides and conquers communities and violates federal hiring practices — because “I have been asked time and time again, ‘What has happened with this relationship? Has Range changed, or has Jesse changed?' and we believe these emails provide people with that missing context.”

When he emailed Walker about the Super Bowl, White said he wondered whether Range might use it against him.

“This would be a good way to see if these guys can be trusted,” White said he thought as he sent it. “They knew and I knew it wasn't real. It was obviously a joking answer to whether I'd be attending their event or not.”

“That's preposterous,” said Pitzarella. “There's no reference to that (barbecue) in (White's) email. … He ‘trusted' us enough to strong-arm campaign contributions and fundraisers for him for nearly five years. He told us he would attend the event, but canceled due to the ice storm. His behavior of saying anything to anyone to only suit himself is at the core of why we could no longer associate ourselves with him.”

The company did not fly any lawmakers to the game or pay for their tickets, Pitzarella said. Range invited a number of Pennsylvania officials, land owners and employees to its burger-and-rib cookout. Pitzarella said Wednesday some lawmakers attended but he didn't have an exact count.

The Steelers invited nine state and local officials to the Super Bowl, but said the team would not pay for flights. Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, attended courtesy of Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. and later said he'd repay the coal and gas producer when his trip became public knowledge.

Fundraising help sought

White's correspondence includes a March 2010 email about a May fundraiser Range was organizing for him. White wanted Autumn Haines, his former district aide who then worked for Range, to oversee the event planning.

His email said he and Haines had “a relationship” at the time. Range said involving her in the fundraiser would be a conflict of interest. White wrote: “Understood — I just don't want to get shortchanged, especially because I am going to catch (expletive) no matter what. I don't have the money some of my colleagues do.”

Haines, 28, who works in Strattanville, Clarion County, declined comment.

“That's a past chapter in my life,” she said.

White insists he did nothing illegal in pursuing fundraising help nearly three years ago.

Range spent $1,000 on White's fundraiser. When the event's contributions totaled less than $5,000, counting the Range money, White emailed Range on June 17, 2010: “This was considerably short of the intended target and to be perfectly blunt, I attest the low turnout to a somewhat substandard effort in working your vendor list.”

Range claims the $10,000 it gave White during that time made him one of its top three recipients.

“We do not routinely give to all lawmakers but we give to some who understand our issues,” Pitzarella said.

Drilling companies put $6.1 million toward Pennsylvania campaigns from 2001 to 2010, according to a November 2011 report by Common Cause of Pennsylvania.

Legislators request campaign money in writing “all the time,” said Barry Kauffman, Common Cause executive director. “Every lobbyist in town gets requests for breakfasts and dinners,” he said, noting that if a solicitation involves support or opposition to legislation, it “crosses the line.”

In the June 17 email, White told Range he found it “disheartening” the company would send only one employee to another industry fundraiser he organized.

“I spent the better part of the day Tuesday working my colleagues on the House floor to oppose the proposed severance tax bill, which was defeated because a core group of ten Democrats (myself included) flatly refused to vote for it while other members who profess to support your industry were busy cutting deals in exchange for their votes,” White wrote.

White later sponsored a failed bill to impose a per-well fee on drillers.

“I take massive amounts of abuse from my constituents every single day about the Marcellus industry,” White wrote in the same email, “and I believe I have done an honest and sincere job of supporting your efforts to create jobs and educate people about Marcellus (shale). I just wanted to express my disappointment at this lack of public support.”

In a July 2011 YouTube video, White talked about his proposed yearly well fee of $20,000. When lawmakers instead passed a $50,000 fee seven months later, his stance had changed. In a House floor speech, he contended $50,000 wasn't enough because lawmakers stripped communities' control.

That December, White told the Trib: “These towns that I represent, they've always been willing to work with the industry. But the problem with the industry is that what they want is always a moving target.”

As White's positions evolved, industry spokesmen lobbed that same complaint at him.

‘I think Range changed'

White represents communities in the heart of shale-gas fields. He supports South Fayette and Cecil in legal challenges Range filed against them. Those townships and three others in his district are suing the state over Act 13, a February 2012 law to regulate the industry.

“I still am in favor of drilling. ... I get that drilling is a big benefit for a lot of the people I represent around here,” White said. “The political path I've chosen, in some ways it's walking the political tightrope. I've subjected myself to the wrath of the industry PR machine, but I've never wavered from saying I'm in favor of drilling.”

Because the emails Range released are years old, White said, he doesn't believe they reveal any hypocrisy. He wouldn't release his emails because he said they might embarrass Range and some of his colleagues.

“The breaking point with Range was when their actions start impacting my constituents in a negative way,” White said. “Somewhere there's this implication that I changed. I think Range changed in the way they deal with me and the way they deal with the people I represent.”

Brad Bumsted and Timothy Puko are Trib Total Media staff writers. Bumsted can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribwe.com. Puko can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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