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“Strings Attached”: New Report Examines How Dominion, Other Utilities “Use Charitable Giving to Influence Politics and Increase Investor Profits”

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In the latest installment of how Dominion Energy epitomizes the corrupt, sleazy “Virginia Way,” check out the new report from the Energy and Policy Institute, “Strings Attached: How utilities use charitable giving to influence politics and increase investor profits.” According to the Energy and Policy Institute, “a watchdog organization that exposes attacks on renewable energy and counters misinformation by fossil fuel and utility interests” (bolding added by me for emphasis):

From 2013 to 2017, EPI estimates that the 10 utilities that we assessed – Ameren, American Electric Power, Arizona Public Service, Dominion Energy, DTE Energy, Duke Energy, Entergy, FirstEnergy, NextEra Energy, and Southern Company – gave approximately $1 billion to charitable organizations.

[…]

EPI documented dozens of cases where the charitable organizations who received contributions from the utility companies took political action on the companies’ behalf, just as the recipients of Entergy’s donations testified with the company’s regulators on behalf of its gas plant. The recipients of the gifts often failed to disclose their financial dependence on the utilities when taking those political actions. 

In addition to the direct ties between utilities’ charitable giving and political actions taken by grantees, the utilities’ giving helps the companies’ general public relations efforts. Utilities’ communications teams routinely send out press releases boasting of their latest grants.

[…]

The data and case studies in this report prove, however, that much of the utilities’ charitable activity is geared explicitly to influence politics. While we have not found a rigorous study of the effect of utility charitable giving on political outcomes, some existing academic literature of corporate charitable giving aligns with our findings, showing that corporations use charitable giving to extract political action from their grantees.

[…]

EPI also found many cases where utilities’ executives and lobbyists hold board positions on a host of civil society organizations, many of which end up supporting the utilities’ position on political matters.

Not good, eh? So how about Dominion specifically? EPI has a specific case study on Virginia’s most excellent state-protected monopoly utility. A few highlights include:

  • EPI estimate of Dominion’s total charitable giving in most recent 5 years (2013-2017): $105,972,472″
  • “In 2015, Dominion successfully lobbied for Virginia legislation to freeze base rates and suspend biennial reviews of company profits by the State Corporation Commission (SCC) through 2022…A slate of Dominion-supported non-profits lined up behind the bill, providing supportive comments at legislative hearings. One such group was Senior Connections, a local organization that supports seniors to remain in their homes and received $90,000 from Dominion’s foundation between 2013-2016. A Dominion community affairs liaison also sits on the group’s Board…”
  • “Dominion has distributed $2 million in grants to communities along the proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through its Community Investment Program, in concert with project partners Duke Energy and Southern Company.”
  • A small charity, whose senior leadership includes a Virginia state legislator sponsoring a Dominion-backed rate bill, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations – both from Dominion’s foundation and its CEO Tom Farrell. Delegate Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) is Director of Operations for the Peter Paul Development Center, which runs programs for disadvantaged children and community members on the east side of Richmond. Bagby also chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. In 2016, Farrell made a $100,000 gift to the center, with Dominion’s foundation also donating $25,000, as reported by the Richmond-Times Dispatch. Both have made previous donations to the group, but they were under $5,000. A former Dominion senior executive sits on the Peter Paul Development Center Board, and says she encouraged the utility’s foundation to increase their largesse to the organization. In the 2018 General Assembly session, Bagby co-patroned a bill with Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott) that Dominion had helped to author. Bagby has not otherwise patroned or co-patroned any energy legislation since his election to the office in 2015. An analysis by the State Corporation Commission concluded that ‘The legislation allows the utilities to keep future excess earnings (i.e. customer overpayments) and, rather than return them to customers, use them for capital projects chosen by the utility. The legislature passed the bill into law in 2018.'”
  • “Since 2014, Dominion has sought to rally local leaders in support of a gas compressor station key to its Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Virginia’s historically Black Union Hill community, which was settled by the formerly enslaved.”
  • “In Virginia, Dominion customers have subsidized hundreds of corporate charitable contributions made by the utility, independent of its foundation. Between 2011-2012, the State Corporation Commission approved Dominion’s request to charge ratepayers  $1.37 million, pre-tax, for donations made by Dominion as part of the utility’s ‘cost of service,’ as reported by the Associated Press. This sum included $4,000 of a $10,000 donation to the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in 2012, where Dominion legislative champion Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City) was a paid fundraiser. Kilgore’s annual salary from the school around the time of the donation was $126,000.”

So…why is any of this type of thing legal? Why should a state-regulated monopoly utility be allowed to influence its regulators, and the people tasked with writing legislation that affects said monopoly utility, at all? And why should the monopoly utility be allowed to have its customers, who are largely captive customers thanks to the…yep, monopoly, subsidize its charitable contributions, not to mention its deluge of propaganda…er, “advertising”…on TV, radio, in the newspapers, etc?  Is there any good reason not to outlaw – or at least restrict – all of this stuff? And is there any reason why it should be legal for lawmakers to accept money from a company they are, theoretically at least, charged with writing and voting on legislation that heavily impacts said company?

Of course, in many ways all of this is the slimy “Virginia Way” epitomized. And, obviously, if you care at all about good government, this system needs to change. On that note, let’s just hope that Jeff Thomas is right, when he says “Dominion is facing the most serious crisis in its 110-year history,” namely that “politicians who refuse to take money from Dominion are an existential threat to Dominion’s business model.”