U.S. Rep. Joe Barton has earned nearly $100,000 from an interest in natural gas wells purchased from a campaign donor who advised the congressman on energy policy, according to interviews and records.
The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday that land records show the Republican from Arlington bought his interest from Walter G. Mize, a Cleburne businessman who donated more than $30,000 to Barton's campaigns.
Barton said at a hearing last month of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he was "a small, small partner in a natural gas well in Johnson County in the Barnett Shale." He later told a reporter that he couldn't remember exactly how he obtained the interest.
Mize, who died in 2008, had urged Barton to create a federal oil and gas research program that was included in a 2005 energy law Barton wrote when he chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mize doesn't appear to have ever directly benefited from the program's funding.
An expert says lawmakers aren't prohibited from going into business with campaign donors, but Barton's interest could become controversial at a time when Congress is considering energy legislation that would boost the demand for natural gas.
Barton, a longtime proponent of domestic oil and natural gas production, said his investment is legal and was publicly reported in accordance with federal law and ethics rules. Barton, who remains the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Republican, told the newspaper his investment doesn't conflict with his legislative responsibilities.
"I don't think my position on any pending issue is going to be affected by me investing in an oil and gas opportunity as long as it's done straight up and reported with my own money at risk," Barton said.
Congressional experts say such deals raise ethical questions for lawmakers, who are expected by the public to separate their personal finances and official duties.
"If you are elected as a public servant to try to do what is right for the public generally and then you use that position to help bring in material wealth, I think it's unethical," said James Thurber, a distinguished professor of government at American University.
Barton said he paid a fair price for his interest in the wells, but his exact costs aren't documented by a 2008 House financial disclosure report. On that form, he listed that he purchased his interest from gas producer EOG Resources Inc.
His office issued a statement saying Barton "bought in at the same rate and assumed the same amount of risk as every other partner in the well" before drilling began. According to his disclosure report, Barton said he paid between $15,000 and $50,000 for his interest in the wells. The report only requires that lawmakers report a range of values.
A Barton spokesman declined to cite a more precise figure.
According to the report, Barton said he earned between $50,001 and $100,000 from the wells in 2008. The Dallas Morning News reported that based on its analysis of land records and gas sales figures reported by Austin-based energy research firm Drillinginfo.com, Barton probably earned at least $80,000.
Mize's daughter, Mary Catherine Hicks, confirmed that her father planned to sell an interest to Barton before his death. The transaction was officially recorded in Johnson County records on May 1, 2008.
Michael H. Frizzell, a former Mize employee, said Mize acquired his interest in the leases from EOG.
A spokeswoman for EOG Resources declined to comment on the lease.
Stanley M. Brand, a Washington ethics lawyer and former House general counsel, said lawmakers aren't barred from going into business with campaign donors or lobbyists. But Barton may have erred by writing on his financial disclosure report that he bought his interest from EOG Resources, the operator and majority owner of the wells.
"That might be a deficiency in the filing," Brand said. House members can be fined up to $11,000 for such errors, but prosecutors must prove that the lawmaker "knowingly and willfully" falsified a portion of a report, Brand said.
Barton didn't mention Mize when asked in a recent interview how he acquired his interest.