by Jeff Thomas
On the day that Eileen Filler-Corn made history as Virginia’s first female Speaker of the House, Delegate Jeff Bourne introduced a bill to make state taxpayers bail out Dominion’s failed Richmond arena scheme. The desperate bailout request, which would take between $55 million and $172 million from the general fund, depending on what numbers one believes, is the result of Dominion failing to extract that money from Richmond taxpayers.
What Is the Dominion Arena Project?
The Dominion arena and its monied backers have ripped apart the fabric of Richmond politics and civil society over the past two and a half years. To briefly summarize, in June 2017, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell announced a plan to use $480 million to $600 million in public money, depending on interest rates, to build a new Richmond Coliseum, with private investors reaping the benefits by building nearby offices, condos, a Hyatt, and other gentrifiers. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney issued a single request for proposals (RFP) in November 2017 that nearly matched Farrell’s proposal and which received just one bid, from Farrell’s development group.
Since then, the crony group has engaged in highly unethical behavior, including race-baiting, ghostwriting columns, and paying working people cash under the table to hold up signs at City Council meetings. Governor Wilder wrote that the $300 million in ‘guaranteed’ minority contracts are illegal under the Supreme Court’s Richmond v. Croson that barred similar racial set asides. It should be noted that in a $1.5 billion project, if $300 million is going to minority contractors, I suppose that means $1.2 billion is set aside for white people. This is somehow supposed to demonstrate the project’s high-mindedness.
Governor Wilder also wrote that people of color advocating for the project were like “the ‘Judas Goat’ [who] was trained to lead sheep to the pens for slaughter.” There are many other examples of the disgraceful conduct of Dominion and NH (Navy Hill) District officials, such as appointing the nephew of Richmond’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) to be General Counsel of Dominion and Secretary of the NH Foundation. The CAO, who had led negotiations on the arena proposal, was fired for nepotism in September 2019 after an inspector general’s report found that the city was employing five of her relatives.
Most shamefully, arena proponents set up a fake nonprofit charity called NH District Corporation to lobby public officials and sell the naming rights to the arena to Dominion for more than $20 million over 20 years in a no-bid, backroom “deal.” NH District Corporation refused to release its charitable (Form 990) tax return that it is legally required to disclose to the public, and only released it after I filed a federal complaint against NH District Corporation. Citizens should not have to blow the whistle on charities to get them to follow the law.
The 2017 990 charitable tax return shows that this “charity” had two donors: Atlantic Union Bank, which gave $2 million, and Dominion, which gave $1.5 million secretly from its coffers rather than publicly through its Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation as it usually does for PR purposes. The charity’s ‘defense,’ if it can be called that, was to admit in writing that “the contributions from Dominion Energy and Atlantic Union Bank listed on Navy Hill’s Form 990 are not ‘gifts’ but rather advances on payment for future potential marketing opportunities.” It is illegal to set up a fake charity to market for for-profit companies.
Virginia’s leading public finance experts examined the arena plan in great detail and rejected it in the strongest terms. An independent expert commission led by Cabinet secretaries from the Warner and Kaine administrations spent months delving into the details of the Coliseum project’s finances. They presented their devastating report to City Council on January 6, 2020, 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.”
In another 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:
“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.“
How many times does the public see an expert public finance attorney write that proposal made him so distraught that he woke up “in a cold sweat” from a “nightmare” that burglars were robbing his house?
Many others have expressed unified opposition to the arena scam. A majority of Richmond City Council – consisting of Kim Gray, Chris Hilbert, Kristin Larson, Stephanie Lynch, and Reva Trammell – all asked Mayor Stoney to pull the arena legislation and issue another RFP. To give an example of the kind of feelings this proposal engendered amongst Richmond’s elected officials, when she was informed that Stoney would not drop the plan, Councilwoman “Larson looked like the blood was going to boil out of her head…She said there was nothing Stoney/the developers could announce between now and the scheduled final vote that would change her mind.” When potential swing vote Councilwoman Trammell was asked whether anything would cause her to reconsider before the final vote scheduled later in February 2020, she replied without hesitation: “No. Never.” Councilman Chris Hilbert, another potential swing vote, told a reporter, “How dare he?” when he was informed of Stoney’s rejection of City Council’s olive branch, then said that he was “for sure” voting against the arena proposal. Kim Gray and Stephanie Lynch are equally against the proposal, if not more so. Because of the magnitude of the Coliseum grift, 7 of 9 councilmembers would have to sign off on the plan. It is difficult to imagine how three would change their votes when they are on record saying they never will, ever. Judging by the fake charity’s public statements, the strategy to change City Council’s votes seems to be to condescendingly insult them.
Dominion Ignores the Un-People Until It Is Too Late
Others who deserve mention for exposing this arena scam are reporters like Jeremy Lazarus of the Richmond Free Press, Mark Robinson and Patrick Wilson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Roberto Roldan of Virginia Public Media; Paul Goldman, Doug Wilder’s brilliant campaign manager; attorney Justin Griffin of nocoliseum.com; Kenya Gibson and other School Board Members; Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia; and Richmond for All leaders like VCU associate professor Kristin Reed and her partner Gary Broderick of RiseforYouth, Jasmine Leeward of New Virginia Majority, Allan Chipman of Initiatives for Change, public school teacher Emma Eliza Clark, and Omari Al-Qadaffi of the Legal Aid Justice Center. (Citizens looking to join a visionary, integrated, welcoming organization that puts values into action should consider joining Richmond for All. Dues are either $2 or $12 per month depending on what people can afford.) We should also mention the modest and incisive gadflies disguised as normal old guys like former Councilman Marty Jewell and former prosecutor Jeff Cartwright. All of the people named above would be the first to give credit to others, and there are many others to mention, including journalists, pipeline fighters like Mara Robbins and Whitney Whiting, organizers, and establishment figures who wish to remain off the record. There are too many people who hate Dominion to list.
The real reason the Dominion arena plan failed is not because of one or two dozen people but because of overwhelming public opposition amongst the citizens of Richmond. A formative event was the 2017 popular referendum in which an 85% supermajority of Richmonders voted for its officials to come up with a plan to fix the city’s unhealthy public school facilities, but which Levar Stoney more or less ignored when he announced his call for the corrupt Coliseum deal two days after the referendum. That story is told here. This framed the issue as public schools versus private arena, and no functioning democracy would choose a costly Coliseum over children. It doesn’t happen often that people beat money in Virginia, and it shows the potential for Virginia having popular referenda like most other states do, from Alaska to California to Florida to Maine to Wyoming.
The Virginia Way oligarchs did not see the people coming: in many ways, they did not see them at all because they do not look like the partners at McGuireWoods and Davenport, and therefore they are un-people. The entire premise of Dominion’s Richmond Coliseum scam is that a large area of downtown by the medical center and City Hall is some variation of an “urban wasteland,” as the retrograde Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board opined, when, in reality, it is the most accessible and integrated area of the city, and the people who work and travel there are mostly a different skin color than the mummified wasps at The Country Club of Virginia. The people achieving real progress against Dominion and the Virginia Way are smarter than the insecure confederates who defend it because the visionaries had to work for their position and rise or fall meritocratically based on the strength of their ideas, execution, and work ethic.
Dominion is too corrupt and inept to understand how to fight democracy; an organization polluted with lies and manipulation of outsiders quickly turns those tools against itself so that insiders cannot trust each other. Everyday work at dishonest organizations devolves into internal politicking and turf wars.
In the face of this principled opposition, Jeff Kelley, the Coliseum scam’s spokespuppet who is so bad at his job he might be a secret opposition plant, or whatever hack runs the organization’s social media, tweeted from NH’s official account on the night the proposal was killed at City Council: “This is actually how it started @ChelseaWiseRVA: with a community discussion facilitated by YOU.” The tweet linked to a purported community forum that Chelsea Wise, a Richmond for All member and one of the city’s most charismatic and beloved citizens, facilitated on December 12, 2018 to hear feedback on how to improve the Coliseum scam. The feedback was ignored, of course. Apparently Ms. Wise’s talents extended to time travel, as the tailored RFP was put out in 2017 and the fake charity that employed Jeff Kelley was the sole respondent in February 2018. The level of deceit was embarrassing but standard, and it showed why many members of City Council would never vote for the project regardless of what new fantasies the fake charity could dream up. Richmonders were more than smart enough to know when they were being misled. Anybody who understands politics knows that people with money usually get what they want, so if these people were just semi-competent, sort of honest, and a little less greedy, they probably could have rammed this thing through city government two years ago.
Long story short, the Dominion arena is dead as a doornail at the local level, but Dominion has spent too much money and made too many promises to accept reality. Something far more than money is at stake. So they are coming to what they see as a pliant General Assembly for a bailout.
What is the Bourne Bailout Bill, HB 1345?
Some state sales tax revenues have always been part of the Coliseum scheme and are in the local legislative projections. In the legislation currently before Richmond City Council, there is an 80-block local real estate tax increment financing (TIF) district and a smaller state sales tax zone. The state sales tax zone 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 NH District Corporation are trying to sell Bourne’s Bailout Bill, HB 1345. 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 independent experts in touch with reality is that the project is an unsound, unreasonable fiscal nightmare. As to the size of the TIF, Bourne’s legislation enlarges the tax zone for state sales taxes while Dominion pays people to promise, really promise, that they will make the 80-block TIF smaller at some later date.
I’s not like this is state money appearing from nowhere: now under Bourne’s Bailout Bill, there are state sales taxes going to the Dominion Coliseum within a larger tax zone in the area between 3rd and 10th and Leigh and Franklin. The state sales tax zone under the Bourne Bailout Bill 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 Delegate Bourne and Tom Farrell’s golfing buddies. The purpose is a bait-and-switch to pretend to change in order to sell a failed deal.
The exact language of the Bourne Bailout 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 Beach statute. But it is.
Why is Jeffrey Bourne sponsoring this bill?
When Virginia Public Media asked Delegate Bourne what he thought of the Coliseum project, “Bourne said that he has not fully vetted the [arena] project and that his bill should not be construed as support.” Why sponsor a bill that you don’t support?
Jeffrey Bourne’s 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.
So, while countless Democrats candidates and activists were out pounding pavement in all sorts of weather, Delegate Bourne did not have to campaign for either the primary or the general. By a similarly ‘coincidental’ turn of fate, Bourne has become very fortunate indeed since he was first elected to the House of Delegates in 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.
Was your job created just for you? Jeff Bourne’s was.
In addition to creating a special 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 scam. 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 created a special job for 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 utility monopoly. When Dominion, the ostensibly “private company,” absorbed VEPCO, the government-guaranteed utility, 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.
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.
What happened to the Bourne Bailout Bill in subcommittee?
A source close to Bourne said that Mayor Stoney came to him just before session began and asked him to carry the Bailout Bill. Typically, a local bill submitted to the General Assembly will have gotten approval from the region’s local and state government leaders. Bourne initially said he would co-sponsor if Stoney could find him other co-sponsors, but Stoney came back to him a couple days later and said that he couldn’t. The senatorial delegation was unanimously opposed, no City Council person supported it, and no other Richmond delegate would cosponsor. Not a single Richmond official who was contacted was willing to join Jeffrey Bourne and co-sponsor this Bailout Bill, but Bourne introduced it anyways. Jeremy Lazarus of the Richmond Free Press, whose articles are required reading for anybody seeking to understand the Coliseum scam, confirmed what was clear from the beginning, despite Bourne’s pleas. It was not precisely a Stoney bill, as “Mr. Farrell was involved in proposing the language for the bill.” Lobbyists from Dominion’s law firm, McGuireWoods, have been lobbying Delegates for the Bailout Bill with imperious emails of the type a boss would send a subordinate.
The bill was scheduled for a 5pm hearing on January 30, 2020 in the Charters subcommittee of the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee. Two hours before the vote, Bourne publicly announced that he would pull the bill.
Jeffrey Bourne looked like he was walking to the gallows when he entered the subcommittee room to present “his” bill to the committee. He told the committee that Mayor Stoney had asked him to introduce it, but that, in light of City Council’s rejection of the Coliseum scam three days prior, he would be pulling the bill so people could have “more conversations.” Delegate Danica Roem, an efficient chairperson, asked who in the room was going to speak in opposition to the bill, and much of the room stood; Delegate Bourne refused even to turn around to acknowledge their presence. Among the group were many of his constituents who were volunteering their time, for God’s sakes, and he could not even summon the minimal moral courage to deign to look at them. He should have been apologizing for betraying them in this corrupt bill. But it would get worse.
Delegate Roem then asked who was going to speak in support. Bourne did turn around for that, and nobody stood up in support of a Dominion bill. Delegate Bourne, Tom Farrell and Mayor Stoney could not marshal a single living soul in their own hometown to speak in favor of this bill. With good reason: every Richmonder knows the bill is a farce.
“What I would think that we should to do to expedite the process here is for someone to motion to lay the bill on the table and then we’ll give you the opportunity to continue that conversation into 2021,” Delegate Roem offered. The committee voted 6-0 to table it at the request of its only patron. “Good call,” said Delegate Poindexter.
An audience member then asked, “Is this to defer?” The Chairwoman responded, “No, this ends the…the bill will not be considered.” “Can this be called back up?” another audience member asked, and Delegate Bourne looked her in the eye and said, “effectively no.” Delegate Roem laid the bill on the table rather than humiliate him by killing it as a polite courtesy to Delegate Bourne. What happened next showed that Delegate Bourne believes that every member of that bipartisan subcommittee is a joke.
On Friday, January 31, something happened at the General Assembly that demonstrated a deep contempt of democracy and what this session is supposed to stand for.
Less than twenty-four hours after the Counties, Cities and Towns Subcommittee on Charters had unanimously tabled the bill, Committee Chairwoman Kaye Kory of Fairfax called a special or ’emergency’ meeting on Friday, January 31, from approximately 1:59 PM to 2:05 PM, to ram through the despised Dominion arena Bailout Bill before any of her colleagues could understand what she was up to.
Nobody that I’ve spoken to can remember a time in history when a bill that was tabled unanimously at the request of its sole patron was resuscitated in a so-called special/emergency committee meeting. Eighty-nine year old Doug Wilder has seen a thing or two in Virginia politics and wrote that this emergency committee session showed “highly questionable shenanigans, previously unseen in the Virginia legislature.” That is because the Bailout Bill has an auto-patron: Dominion. With Dominion as its auto-patron, the bill became un-Bourne and un-dead.
This meeting was illegal under Virginia law. Under VA 2.2-3707 and VA 2.2-3701, emergency meetings may only be held if there is “an unforeseen circumstance rendering the notice required by this chapter impossible or impracticable and which circumstance requires immediate action.” The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council has found that “public bodies should post notice at least three workings days in advance of any meeting unless the particular factual circumstances surrounding a special or emergency meeting necessitate some shorter time period.”
The necessity of such a meeting is a heavy burden of proof to meet, one that is not plausibly met by a six-minute hearing that could be scheduled at nearly any time with proper legal notice. There was no emergency whatsoever: immediately after this special or ‘emergency’ meeting, the Delegates left town for the weekend, and the ’emergency’ was to move a bill to another committee, not to pass something for disaster relief or state security. Furthermore, so far as I can tell, there was no contemporaneous public notice, as is required. There was no notable factor to distinguish this bill from any of the thousands of other bills then pending in the General Assembly except for its auto-patron.
If a Delegate can unilaterally claim without scrutiny there is a special emergency at any time, then the public notice requirements under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act are meaningless. This cannot be.
The illegal meeting was conducted with a craven arrogance in which the Chair lied to other Delegates and refused to answer their questions. A bill that had garnered a roomful of opponents without a single person in the world to speak on its behalf the previous day and very publicly pulled by its lone sponsor had by some inexplicable magic turned into something that demanded unquestioned fealty from Virginia’s elected officials. Delegate Kory called a quorum and immediately tried to force a vote to take the bill off the subcommittee table, but nobody had any clue what they were voting on.
(The short, ghastly video is here.)
One Delegate asked off-camera: “Madame Chair, do we have any documentation on what we’re removing from the table? What bill are we talking about?”
Chair Kory: “It’s up on the…it’s 1345, Richmond City of Arena…the arena and development project, it is Delegate Bourne’s bill.”
Delegate: “I only have seven words of explanation on the bill, do we have a copy of the bill anywhere?”
Chair Kory: “The bill already went through subcommittee.” [It was unanimously tabled.]
Delegate: “I wasn’t in that subcommittee, Madame chair.”
Chair Kory did not respond.
With that apparently settled, Chair Kory called on Delegate Nancy Guy.
Delegate Guy: “My source is the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning that said that Delegate Bourne had withdrawn his patronship for this bill. So I don’t know whose bill this is now.”
Delegate Kory: “Well, Delegate Guy, that’s inaccurate, that’s why we’re proceeding today.”
Delegate Cory then called on Delegate Lee Carter.
Delegate Carter: “Madame Chair, if I may ask, how is it that this bill came to be on the table such that we need to pick it off the table?”
Delegate Cory: “I’m sorry, you may not ask that question, Delegate Carter, it’s not appropriate.”
The reason Delegate Cory refused to answer Delegate Carter’s question is because answering it truthfully would have exposed the proceedings as a farce.
Delegate Cory then quickly called a vote but had to stop with another question from Delegate Wyatt.
Delegate Wyatt: “Madame Chair, I was present in the committee meeting yesterday. Can maybe the chair refresh my memory, did we hear testimony on this bill from the patron?”
Delegate Kory: “Go ahead, Delegate Roem.”
Delegate Roem: “Madame Chair, I would tell the Delegate that, yes, we heard testimony from the patron of the bill.”
Delegate Wyatt: “Madame Chair, a follow up question?”
Delegate Kory: “Let me make an announcement first. I need to add to the administrative announcement that I made when we opened the meeting and that is that the purpose of bringing HB 1345 off the table is to refer it to Finance which is a request from the Speaker.”
Kaye Kory then ignored Delegate Wyatt and forced a vote on something that no Delegate understood except the auto-patron.
This whole charade was over in three minutes and thirty-five seconds. It is safe to say that not a single member understood that this would take from $55 million to $172 million from the general fund and that not a single member of the local delegation supported it.
The Pillow Talk Theory
Why did a Delegate from Fairfax call an illegal meeting to ram through a local Richmond bill that had been pulled and unanimously tabled at the request of its sole patron?
Delegate Kory claimed that she did so at the request of Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, but the Speaker denied this and claimed there was a “clerical error.” According to Justin Mattingly of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Filler-Corn’s office sent a letter to Kory on Monday — before the subcommittee tabled the bill — saying that if the committee ‘decides to act favorably and report the bill,’ it should be sent to the House Appropriations Committee, a different committee than where the bill is headed. Bourne said Friday afternoon that he wasn’t aware of the move. He is not a member of the Counties, Cities and Towns Committee and wasn’t at Friday’s meeting.”
In this unbelievable theory, a “clerical error” happened to illegally ram through a bill at the behest of the state’s largest campaign contributor.
One angle that has not been reported is the Pillow Talk Theory. The Speaker’s Chief of Staff, Kevin O’Holleran, is married to Jennie Moline O’Holleran, who is a lobbyist on state affairs for the City of Richmond. This is called corruption.
In November of 2019, Speaker-elect Filler-Corn appointed Jennie O’Holleran to her transition team. Jennie O’Holleran is a registered lobbyist for the City of Richmond during the 2020 session. She registered on January 13, 2020.
If you look at her lobbyist registration form, you see the city employee retaining the records of her lobbying activities is Lincoln Saunders, Chief of Staff to Mayor Stoney.
Councilwomen Gray and Larson “are formally asking” for the details of this financial arrangement. It is interesting to consider how Richmonders would feel about their tax dollars paying to lobby for a scam that is against their own interests.
Dr. Reed and others tracked down Speaker Filler-Corn to ask her about this bill. Speaker Filler-Corn pledged on video repeatedly that “the bill is dead.”
Jeff Thomas is the author of The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power After 2016.