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Thursday, October 14, 2010

House candidate admits mistake on financial form

Republican congressional candidate Charles Bass admitted Wednesday that he mistakenly self reported he had bought at least $500,000 worth of privately held stock in a Jaffrey-based wood pellet company the last year he served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In March 2007, Bass revealed on his own financial disclosure statement that he had bought shares in New England Wood Pellet in January and November 2006.

During an interview Wednesday, Bass insisted his own disclosure forms were incorrect and he did not obtain any stock in the company until after he lost his 2006 re-election campaign to Democrat Paul Hodes.

Bass said he first inquired about buying stock after the election in November 2006 and the New England Wood Pellet’s Board of Managers approved selling shares to Bass in January 2007.

“I only acquired the stock after serving in Congress,” Bass said during a telephone interview. “There is nothing wrong with getting into the business after I got out of office and that’s just what I did.”

Bass said he has the stock certificates to prove the purchase of stock in January 2007 and not a year earlier.

In January 2007, Hodes replaced Bass in office. Bass joined NEWP’s board of managers Jan. 18, 2007.

New England Wood Pellet officials publicly credited Bass with setting up a February 2006 meeting in New Hampshire between Secretary Samuel Bodman and Steven Walker, president of the wood pellet firm.

“Congressman Bass, who introduced and championed passage of the Renewable Energy Security Act (RESA) provisions of the 2005 energy bill, saw an opportunity to promote the provisions of the act through a meeting between Walker and Secretary Bodman,” said the March 2006 newsletter of the Pellet Fuels Institute.

Walker is married to Bass’ niece.

As for the meeting with President George W. Bush’s energy secretary, Bass said he had nothing to do with setting one up and said he has never spoken with Bodman about the biomass industry.

Bass recalled being with Bodman on Feb. 23, 2006, but meeting only with company executives at GT Solar in Merrimack, a major manufacturer of solar panels.

“I can’t speak for the Pellet Fuels Institute, but I don’t remember anything coming from my office about any other meeting with Secretary Bodman,” Bass said. “I don’t ever recall talking with the secretary about the biomass industry.”

A leading ethics watchdog said if Bass bought stock while in Congress and later helped set up a meeting with a Bush administration official, this would clearly violate House ethics rules.

“This would have clearly been a conflict of interest and clearly an even more serious one had he not disclosed to the Energy Department he already had a financial interest in the company,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington.

“This is not a close call. We don’t have all that many members of Congress who have been found to have engaged in this conduct. Even those accused of this have faced some serious charges. If the facts were as you explained, this would be a big deal.”

A spokesman for Ann McLane Kuster, Bass’ 2nd Congressional District rival, said his explanation fails to settle the matter.

“This is deeply troubling and leaves a lot of questions unanswered,” said Colin Van Ostern, Kuster’s campaign manager.

Scott Trachmontagne, a Bass campaign media adviser, said during his 12 years in Congress, Bass met with executives of dozens of New Hampshire companies to help them with federal policy that would assist their businesses.

Since leaving office, Bass has taken a private role in other, alternative energy companies and serves on the board of Laidlaw Biopower, the firm building a wood-to-energy plant in Berlin.

“This is what I’ve been doing for a living since leaving the Congress,” Bass said.

In and out of Congress, Bass has been a cheerleader for promoting biomass as an alternative to foreign oil and an economic boon for foresters and the wood products industry.

In 2005, Bass authored legislation for a 25 percent tax rebate of up to $3,000 apiece for those who bought high efficiency systems. These would include state-of-the-art, wood pellet stoves along with a solar photovoltaic (PV), geothermal and small wind turbine or hydro systems.

The rebate was part of a comprehensive energy bill Congress passed that year. In 2006, however, Bush did not ask for the rebate to be paid for in his proposed budget.

New England Wood Pellet executives publicly promoted the rebate.

Company officials in March 2006 said the meeting between Energy Secretary Bodman and Walker was on the prospects for funding the rebate plus writing rules for the program.

New England Wood Pellet officials have given Bass’ current campaign $5,500, placing it among his highest 10 business donors to this race.

In September 2005, Walker told The New York Times his company was growing so fast he might not have been able to keep up with the orders if Congress had financed the Bass tax rebate.

“It is just as well, Mr. Walker says, that the new energy bill did not deliver a 25 percent rebate on the purchase of pellet-burning stoves or boilers that his congressman, Charles F. Bass, a Republican, lobbied for at his urging,” The Times reported. “If it had, he says, he would be even more overwhelmed.”

As for the disclosure form, Bass said he must have put the wrong year for his stock purchase because he was filing it in 2007 and the purchase had recently taken place.

“At the time, I was out of politics and had no plans to return to elective office so I saw this report as closing things out,” Bass said.

This was the only purchase of stock in the company, Bass maintained. Subsequent, financial disclosures from Bass reveal the value of his stock went up from at worth least $500,000 after first acquiring it at least $1 million by December 2008.

“The company is at least three times the size from when I bought that stock. It’s been growing at better than 20 percent a year,’’ Bass explained.

“It’s only worth what somebody is willing to pay for it. I didn’t want to get caught undervaluing anything.”

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or