MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch announced Wednesday he would not accept campaign contributions from political action committees of companies that have cases before the state regulatory board upon which his wife sits.
The Democrat, who is seeking re-election and has no Republican Party challengers, received $8,000 in campaign donations from the Comcast Corp. Political Action Committee, while cable giant Comcast's case is pending before the Vermont Public Service Board, of which his wife is a member.
Margaret Cheney and her fellow board members are considering a new license for Comcast to operate in the state for the next 11 years. She also announced she would step aside from hearing the case before the board.
Their announcements came hours after The Associated Press reported the PAC contributions and criticism from some who said one of the state's leading power couples should do more to guard against any appearance of a conflict of interest.
The couple insisted they keep a virtual wall between their public service business and Cheney said she wasn't aware of the donations before they made their separate announcements.
"Like many professional couples, Peter and Margaret successfully separate their business and personal lives," Welch spokeswoman Kirsten Hartman said in a statement. "Congressman Welch has never been asked to influence his wife on any case before the Public Service Board, nor would he.
"But, in the interest of eliminating the perception of influence going forward, Congressman Welch will not accept campaign contributions from political action committees or employees of companies appearing before the Public Service Board," the statement said.
Cheney said in a statement that she decided to recuse herself from the Comcast proceedings "to eliminate any possible appearance of a conflict of interest."
Rob Chapman, executive director of the ORCA Media community access channel, said previously that the Cheney-Welch connection reflected his broad concerns about the influence of campaign contributions on public policy.
"The fact remains that my organization is not in a position to be able to give large contributions to a congressman. Is that fair? It doesn't feel it," said Chapman, who has testified in the Comcast case.
Welch has raised nearly $729,000 as of June 30, according to Federal Election Commission records. There's no evidence the Comcast PAC contributions to her husband's campaign influenced Cheney's deliberations earlier in the Comcast case.
Comcast spokeswomen did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment.
Vermont ethics codes say public officials have a duty to guard against even the appearance of conflicts.
Cyrus Patten, a partner in Campaign for Vermont, a nonprofit group that promotes government ethics and transparency, argued that Cheney and Welch both have a responsibility to keep one another informed of potential conflicts, so she can remove herself from hearing certain cases or he can turn down donations from certain entities.
Patten said Cheney "has a responsibility to know ... She should put in a good-faith effort to make sure she doesn't have a conflict regarding any of the corporations she's regulating."
Of Welch, Patten said, "He should have paused for a moment to recognize that Comcast as a business has regular and significant business before the Public Service Board."