It’s a good thing Delegate Jeffrey Bourne is such an amateur.
Anybody carrying the water for Dominion CEO Tom Farrell and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s deeply unpopular Coliseum project by introducing a bill for them on the first day of session would be wise to be a little more subtle about who was pulling his strings.
There is voluminous evidence that Dominion’s Coliseum plan is ill-conceived and has been throughout its sordid history. To give one brief example, Esson Miller is a careful attorney who served as the former staff director of the Virginia Senate Finance Committee and the Virginia General Assembly Legislative Services Division. He wrote in Style Weekly that Dominion’s Coliseum project made him so distraught that he woke up in a cold sweat from a nightmare that burglars were robbing his house.
“I recently awoke at 4 a.m. from a recurring nightmare I have when suffering from any type of personal fiscal stress. In my nightmare, a burglar has broken into our home and is rummaging through our valuables. I confront him, after hearing an unrecognizable noise downstairs, and then immediately wake up from the nightmare in a cold sweat. This morning, however, my fiscal stress was not produced by actions I have taken or not taken, but by those already taken by our mayor and about to be confirmed by our City Council. That action is the Coliseum replacement proposed by important leaders doing business within the city. They are rummaging through the city’s fiscal well-being, putting it at severe risk that could have long-term detrimental impact.“
Hard, really, to think of comparable statements by any state’s leading expert in public finance.
Jeffrey Bourne’s last foray into Dominion’s unsound Coliseum proposal was in early 2018. Richmond voters had just passed a referendum with more than 85% of the vote calling on their local government to fix the city’s dilapidated schools that are the source of so many of its problems. Bourne agreed to shepherd this referendum through the General Assembly, but he submitted a different bill to the House, one that would modify the referendum language to permit a tax increase to fund schools. “The mayor believes Delegate Bourne’s version is an improvement,” said Mayor Stoney’s spokesman. Senator Glen Sturtevant’s Senate version of the bill remained identical to that passed by Richmond voters. Bourne’s bill died a quick death in a House subcommittee, where the chairman coolly “told Bourne after the bill was killed to ‘take a good look’ at the Senate version.” The next day, Sturtevant’s bill passed unanimously through the full Senate, and less than three weeks later, Sturtevant’s bill passed through that same House subcommittee unanimously. On its way to passage, the bill would not receive a single vote against it from any politician in the state. Governor Northam signed the bill into law on April 4, 2018.
Unlike many other legislators, Jeffrey Bourne has not been terribly busy between then and now. His district is 86.7% Democratic, or about 25 points more Democratic than Massachusetts. No Democrat or Republican cared to run against him last year, and he won his election against Libertarian Gary Wells with 88% of the vote.
Something curious happened on the way to his 70%+ unopposed cakewalk. Dominion started to have serious trouble passing its corrupt Coliseum scam, and Dominion gave Bourne’s campaign $21,000 cash, $19,000 of it in October 2019.
Was Libertarian Pete Wells a Bloomberg-level businessman? See for yourself.
Politicians in Virginia enjoy a unique kind of freedom: “Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, including corporations and unions, and spend the money on themselves,” Associated Press reporter Alan Suderman wrote in a must-read article.
By a similar turn of fate, Bourne has become very fortunate indeed since he was first elected to the House of Delegates in November of 2017. By early January 2018, he was appointed to “the newly created position of general counsel for the Branch Group,” a large construction and general contracting firm with substantial local government contracting interests.
In addition to creating a special new job for a new member of the House of Delegates, it wouldn’t be the Virginia Way if Branch didn’t stand to benefit from the Coliseum deal. According to Richmond BizSense, “Documents submitted to City Council and posted on the city’s website list more than 30 firms that have contributed to the project. About half of those businesses are locally based, ranging from Richmond architecture firms Baskervill and SMBW to area contractors Branch Builds, Hourigan and W.M. Jordan Co.” Branch Builds is a subsidiary of the Branch Group that employs Jeffrey Bourne.
The Dominion Vampire Goes Hunting
At the same time that Bourne was finding lucrative new employment opportunities, Dominion was facing a serious problem. It absolutely must have a pliant Virginia General Assembly because 65% of its profits come from its Virginia monopoly. When Dominion, the ostensibly ‘private company,’ absorbed VEPCO, the government-guaranteed monopoly, in the early 1990s, VEPCO generated over 90% of its profits. And, in a state political establishment that claims to worship business, Dominion’s interests in raising electricity rates to send profits to Wall Street are anti-business and take money out of the Virginia economy as effectively as any tax. The Activate Virginia pledge for politicians with integrity never to take money from Dominion or ApCo represents an existential threat to their business model.
Dominion has responded like a drug dealer with a shrinking customer base, relentlessly flooding the system with money to keep the addicts hooked.
(For those that play the Virginia Way game like former Senator John Watkins, a sinecure awaits to reward years of loyalty for allowing Dominion the honor of being his top donor, but, more importantly, to send a signal to those still in office. Reflecting the moral compass of such people, after Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted, Senator John Watkins insisted that free gifts were a part of his salary. “The press isn’t going to be satisfied until [gifts are] zero. Maybe that’s the way we should be going, but if we do, everybody in here deserves a pay raise, commensurate with what directors of a company with a budget as big” [sic].)
Seeking to circumvent this ban and fight the growing threat of Virginia democracy, Dominion executives have increased their personal giving. For his recent non-election, Bourne received $2,500 from Tom Farrell, $2,000 from Bob Blue, $1,500 from William Murray, and $1,000 from Diane Leopold.
The opening day of session was a historic day that should have belonged to the people of Virginia. Jeffrey Bourne used it to carry legislation written to benefit the most corrupt and despised company in Virginia and its Republican CEO.
Tom Farrell has a different view of history than that expressed by the majority of Virginia Democrats on Wednesday. In his version, Confederate soldiers and slaveowners fought to “free the slaves” and President Lincoln and General Grant conspired in the Oval Office to murder children. Here is a page from Dominion CEO Tom Farrell’s Field of Lost Shoes, a 2014 film about the Civil War that he wrote, produced, acted in, and took $1 million in public money to pay somebody to direct:
This really can only be described as a Soviet level of propaganda, something about which Tom Farrell was quite proud.
This movie is so interesting because it is pure id. There were no Dominion spokespeople or Board members or market forces intervening to create the usual phalanx of deniability between Farrell’s decisions and public knowledge of them. Making a historical fantasy movie about Confederate soldiers freeing slaves is what Tom Farrell chose to do with all of his freedom and autonomy.
The Coliseum project reflects such a worldview. For those who do not know Richmond, the area north of Broad Street is historically black and south is historically white. The VCU Health campus and surrounding government areas are probably the most integrated and accessible places in the entire city: everyone got sick or had to go to court or City Hall at some point, after all. There are plenty of people in the area slated for ‘redevelopment:’ Richmond is a majority black city, and maybe two-thirds of the people in this area at any time happened to be African-American residents just living their lives.
Yet Richmond’s Chamber of Commerce leaders penned their feelings about it in Richmond’s inimitable coded language: “Do we want the space between the VCU Medical Center and the convention center to become a walkable, attractive area filled with residents and visitors or do we prefer blocks of unattractive old office buildings that encourage folks to stay away?” “Folks” did not “stay away:” even in the map above that the city submitted in its request for proposals, one can see hundreds of cars in mostly full parking lots. Thousands of people worked and conducted business there everyday, despite the Chamber leaders’ evident fear to even walk in the area filled with un-people.
The Coliseum is one block north of Broad, but the area was not some ghost town that nobody visited, and it was astonishing to hear it repeated again and again that the area was some variation of an “urban wasteland,”as the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board opined.
The paper’s op-ed pages published two opinion pieces in December 2018 and January 2019 purported to be by local university presidents of color. NH spokesperson Jeff Kelley wrote an op-ed submitted under Tom Farrell’s name and another that VCU submitted under President Michael Rao’s name. These are not sophisticated people, and the timing seemed a bit overkill. According to internal documents, at 2:40 PM on December 6, 2018, Kelley wrote Pam Lepley, Vice President of University Relations at VCU, that “we can absolutely push back” the Rao op-ed because “we have one running for Tom Farrell on Monday.” That Sunday morning, December 9, Blue Virginia published a longform piece that went viral and exposed the racism behind the Coliseum urban renewal.
NH District called the Richmond Times-Dispatch that day and told them to change the author of the pending Coliseum piece from Tom Farrell to Hakim Lucas and Makola Abdullah, the presidents of Virginia Union and Virginia State. The Orwellian piece, titled “We Commit to Progress, with Openness and Transparency,” ran in print under those authors’ names, and in what can only be described as racial tokenism, added four more contributors online, all African American, who can still be viewed using the Wayback Machine. However, the electronic version was soon updated to reflect a larger number of authors, including Tom Farrell and other white people. Ten months later, a disclaimer was added above the piece to note that the authors’ names had been changed.
VCU President Michael Rao’s January 7, 2019 column, “Navy Hill Would be Transformative for All,” reflected the new and more overt race-baiting strategy the private investors were using to hide the plain facts. It, too was written by Jeff Kelley, and featured the same platitudes and corporate buzzwords that typify his work. It is always amazing to see the deference and treatment of the Richmond power elite as if they are a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein, but the truth is that they are arrogant emperors with no clothes whose vision is constrained by greed and provincial manifest destiny. They are also constitutionally incapable of telling the truth: to get at the truth, the opposite of what they say is usually accurate. For example, the column read: “The Navy Hill plan was not created by corporate or political interests, but informed by the people of Richmond during the past two decades.”
Dominion’s Coliseum public relations push has a long and shameful history of putting African Americans in front of a project while white businessmen remain in control. Governor Wilder wrote that the $300 million in ‘guaranteed’ minority contracts are illegal, and people of color advocating for the project are like “the ‘Judas Goat’ [who] was trained to lead sheep to the pens for slaughter.”
What does the Bourne Coliseum bill actually do?
Some state sales tax revenues have always been part of the Coliseum plan and are in the projections. In the legislation currently before Richmond City Council, there are two tax increment financing (TIF) districts: the 80-block local real estate TIF and a smaller state sales tax TIF. The state sales tax TIF is only for the Coliseum itself and parts of the 1 block south of the Coliseum.
But this is not how the dishonest operatives at Dominion-led development ‘nonprofit’ NH District Corporation are trying to sell Bourne’s legislation. Coliseum spokesperson Jeff Kelley claims the purpose is to “allow us to shrink the size of the [tax] increment financing area, which is the primary concern we have heard about the project from the community.” As noted, the primary concern from experts in touch with reality is that the project is a financial nightmare and fiscally unsound. As to the size of the TIF, Bourne’s legislation enlarges the TIF for state sales taxes while Dominion promises, really promises, that they will make the 80-block TIF smaller at some later date.
Why change now?
Dominion’s Coliseum plan was supposed to have been rammed through Richmond City Council long before Dominion flooded Jeff Bourne’s campaign coffers in October 2019. An independent expert commission spent months delving into the details of the Coliseum project’s finance. They presented their devastating report to City Council on Monday, January 6, and concluded that “a majority of commissioners did not find the proposed, publicly financed $300 million arena a sound and reasonable public investment in the redevelopment of downtown.”
This is how Dominion reacts when it’s beaten: its spokespeople claim to change the name of the game and then offer a ‘compromise’ that in reality still achieves its maximal objectives. Often during session some credulous groups will jump on the ‘compromise’ because they believe they extracted concessions from Dominion on wind energy, etc., but they don’t realize that was Dominion’s plan all along and they make just as much money off of monopolizing and then slow walking the turbines. Dominion also likes to gin up a panic with artificial deadlines and boogiemen and create pressure to quickly move for a vote so typically street-wise activists think that ‘if we don’t vote for this, then we’ll lose our half a loaf and never have another chance.’ Thankfully, Jeffrey Bourne is not an adroit legislator.
As to the newly-drawn state sales tax TIF, it’s not like it’s state money appearing from nowhere: now under Bourne’s legislation, there are state sales taxes going to the Dominion Coliseum within a larger TIF in the area between 3rd and 10th and Leigh and Franklin. The state sales tax TIF is enlarged to include the Convention Center, City Hall, General Assembly building, AG offices, SCOVA, RTD and RFP, Performing Arts Center, Federal Court, Library of Virginia, all the restaurants and everything else in that area that would usually go to the state general fund but instead will go to Jeffrey Bourne and Tom Farrell’s golfing buddies. We all know who lives and works and spends money in downtown Richmond. Sales taxes are regressive taxes and Richmonders are largely paying either way wherever the sales tax is calculated in downtown Richmond and whatever the precise mix is of local v. state. It’s not like state sales taxes collected from downtown are coming from elsewhere in ‘the state.’
Under § 30-101 of the Code of Virginia, Bourne has a personal interest in this bill:
“Personal interest in a transaction” means a personal interest of a legislator in any matter considered by the General Assembly. Such personal interest exists when a legislator or a member of his immediate family has a personal interest in property or a business, or represents or provides services to any individual or business and such property, business or represented or served individual or business (i) is the subject of the transaction or (ii) may realize a reasonably foreseeable direct or indirect benefit or detriment as a result of the action of the agency considering the transaction.”
The exact language of the bill is ripped off from Virginia Beach 15.2-5933, which was introduced as 2019 legislation. What strikes one most about Bourne’s HB1345 is the definitions section. The first two make it obvious that this is special legislation for the developer – something NH takes for granted – and the rest make clear that clarity was not intended. It’s a cut and paste job to make it seem like it’s no big deal by mimicking the Virginia Bech statute. But it is.
What kind of politician is Jeffrey Bourne?
There are politicians on both sides of the aisle who want to get in office and help people. There are those who are power-hungry master manipulators who often ascend to leadership.
If a politician doesn’t campaign or legislate, it is a fair question as to what he actually does. Jeffrey Bourne is a system-milker. He’s a nice-looking guy with some level of charisma and intelligence who, frankly, just doesn’t care about legislating, if we pay attention to actions rather than words as we should with all people – especially politicians. When he was on Richmond School Board, he just did whatever Mayor Dwight Jones wanted. And now that he’s in the General Assembly, he does whatever Farrell and Stoney’s operatives tell him to do.
When Virginia Public Media asked Jeffrey Bourne what he thought of the Coliseum project, “Bourne said that he has not fully vetted the Navy Hill project and that his bill should not be construed as support.” This is accurate. If you just do whatever your donors want, then you don’t have to think. The best kind of system-milkers are lazy and corrupt.
According to his 2019 SOEI, Jeffrey Bourne’s wife is Deputy Executive Director of Venture Richmond. Anedra [sic] Wiseman Bourne’s 2018 financial disclosure for being on the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation-Board states claims she was also Tourism Coordinator for City of Richmond. The Richmond tourism board is another part of Richmond’s political jobs machine most known for putting up signs in Shockoe Bottom directing people to everything but the sites related to slavery.
Eventually, Jeffrey Bourne will either get voted out or grow bored and then take a fat salary at some forgotten state board that gives a generous per diem for quarterly board meeting attendance.
Why not try to pass a nightmarish $1,500,000,000 scheme that puts “the city’s fiscal well-being…at severe risk that could have long-term detrimental impact” but that by your own admission you do not even understand? It could mean $21,000 for your next unopposed election, and skimming 0.0014% off the top is a pretty good deal for system-milkers if the pie is big enough. If you get voted out, you can always follow the well-trod path to Dominion or its law firm McGuireWoods.
Like everything else with the Dominion Coliseum, ‘shrinking the TIF and getting the state to pay for it’ is a transparent con. The critical element is the degree to which Jeffrey Bourne used the freedom and power that so few Virginians have ever had to expose himself to serious charges of wrongdoing.
Update January 13, 2020: Former Governor Wilder has commented on Delegate Bourne’s conduct on WilderVisions.org.
“Is Clown Prince the new term for Uncle Tom?
A recent article written by Jeff Thomas in Blue Virginia described one-term delegate, Jeffrey Bourne of Richmond, as “Dominion’s Clown Prince”.
In the days of segregation, characterized by an absence of elected officials for people of color, certain individuals were designated by whites as representatives of the minority communities. They were told what to say and what to do, requiring no need to seek input from the people that they purportedly represented.
Questions have arisen and I have been asked if this is what happened in the aforementioned news piece.
It’s hard to believe, but not surprising, that in 2020 this has been revived on such a grand scale with only the changing of the name.”
Response from Jeff Thomas posted on Gov. Wilder’s Facebook page:
Thank you for speaking the truth about what is happening with this disgraceful and divisive project. You warned us about Judas Goats leading people to slaughter. It is only in late 2018, 1.5 years after the project was publicly initiated, and only after people with integrity began exposing the Navy Hill project for its racist assumptions, that the NH people began to reach out to the black community as front authors for their ghostwritten columns. You also wrote about the Richmond v. Croson ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled a similar minority set aisde in Richmond as illegal and unconstitutional. This is critical to understanding what is happening and has not been covered enough: the MBE money that is being promised to buy people’s support is illegal under SCOTUS precedent. I would hope that Delegate Bourne would heed your words, withdraw this bill which he clearly did not write, apologize to his constituents, renounce any further contributions from Dominion and its executives, and strive to learn from this extremely unfortunately situation. We are all human and make mistakes; people who truly want to change and repent do so with actions.
I welcome any interested persons to read the piece the Gov. Wilder is referencing, which documents well the racism of the project. I would also recommend Mr. Wilder’s important writings on the subject, “The Judas Goats Are Here” from November 2019 and “My Comments on the Coliseum Project” from last January, among others.
It is heartbreaking to see what the Navy Hill project is doing to our community. Thank you for being a voice of reason.”
Jeff Thomas is the author of The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016. Parts of this essay appeared there and in “The Truth About Dominion’s Richmond Coliseum Plan.”