Does Dominion buy votes? Sure, but not the way you think.

By Djembayz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26128831

Observers, critics, and even legislators agree that utility giant Dominion Resources is the single most powerful force in the Virginia General Assembly. It gets the legislation passed that it wants, and it almost always succeeds in killing bills it doesn’t like. Media stories point out one reason for this huge influence: the company gives more money to political campaigns than does any other individual or corporation.

But it’s more complicated than that. Dominion distributes its largesse among Republicans and Democrats alike according to rank and power, not according to party affiliation, and not according to how they vote. Legislators stay on the gravy train even when they occasionally vote against Dominion’s interests. (No lawmaker consistently votes against Dominion’s interests. That would be weird. It is, after all, a utility.)

In the General Assembly, the most money goes to members of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees, which hear most of the bills affecting energy policy. But Dominion also donates to the campaigns of nearly every incumbent lawmaker, regardless of committee assignment. It does not, however, donate to their challengers. Only to the victors go the spoils.

So today let’s look at some of the lucky recipients of Dominion’s money. This information comes from the Virginia Public Access Project, vpap.org, supplemented by information available on the General Assembly website. 

Legislators whose campaigns have received more than $50,000 from Dominion (lifetime)

Recipient Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Sen. Saslaw D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Del. Kilgore R 1    Southwest 162,000 35,000
Sen. Deeds D 25   Piedmont 109,700 1,500
Sen. Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula/Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Del. Cox* R 66   Central 90,799 29,099
Sen. Wagner R 7    Tidewater 79,735 26,885
Del. Plum** D 36   NoVa 78,750 4,000
Del. Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Sen. Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000

Notes:

  • Lifetime totals may include more than one campaign committee. Creigh Deeds collected money for Delegate, Senate, AG and Governor’s races, which explains how he racked up this much in donations; he was also formerly a member of Commerce and Labor, but by 2014 he’d been removed from the committee.
  • I chose 2014-2015 as a single election cycle comparison because both House and Senate seats were up that year.
  • *Cox is not on Commerce and Labor but is House Majority Leader, a position that propelled him into the ranks of top Dominion recipients.
  • **Plum is a former member of House Commerce and Labor and currently a member of the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation. (Other Commission members include Delegates Kilgore, Hugo, Miller, Villanueva and James; and Senators Norment, Lucas, Saslaw and Wagner.)

Saslaw, Kilgore, Norment, Wagner, Hugo and Obenshain all sit on the Commerce and Labor committees that hear most of the bills affecting Dominion’s business dealings. Wagner chairs Senate C&L and runs it as his personal fiefdom; Saslaw did the same when Democrats held the Senate. He will be Chairman again if control switches back. In addition to sitting on Senate C&L, Norment is the Senate Majority Leader.

Kilgore chairs House C&L, and like Wagner, he controls not just the docket but usually the outcome of votes. Hugo is House Majority Caucus Chairman in addition to being a member of C&L.

These powerful men (they are all men, and all white) get the biggest donations, but anyone with a seat on the committee can expect to collect donations from Dominion.

Dominion donations to Commerce and Labor Committee members

Senate

Senator Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Wagner (Chair) R 7  Tidewater 81,985 26,885
Saslaw (former Chair, Minority Leader) D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula to Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Newman R 23 Roanoke area 20,500 3,000
Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000
Stuart R 28  Fredericksburg area 20,750 6,000
Stanley R 20  Southside 19,500 9,000
Cosgrove R 14  Tidewater 7,000 2,000
Chafin R 38  Southwest 10,500 6,500
Dance D 16  Central 25,692 9,000
Lucas D 18  Tidewater 31,950 5,200
McDougle R 4    Central 47,250 10,000
Black R 13  NoVa (outer suburbs) 9,750 1,000
Sturtevant* R 10  Central 4,000
Spruill D 5    Tidewater 35,419 4,200

*Sturtevant joined the Senate in 2016.

House Commerce and Labor Special Subcommittee on Energy

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Kilgore (Chair) R 1    Southwest 162,000 (top) 35,000
Byron R 22  Southwest 24,500 4,000
Ware, L. R 65  Central 26,800 4,000
Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Marshall, D.W. R 14  Southside 20,250 5,000
Cline R 24  West (Lexington area) 13,750 3,000
Miller, J R 50  NoVa (western suburbs) 29,000 7,500
Loupassi R 68  Central 20,000 5,000
Habeeb R 8    Southwest 12,500 5,000
Villanueva R 21  Tidewater 11,000 3,500
Tyler D 75  Southside 17,000 4,000
Keam D 35  NoVa 8,750 2,750
Lindsey D 90  Tidewater 3,300 2,300

Other House Commerce and Labor members (not on energy subcommittee)

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Bell, Robert B. R 58  Piedmont 14,500 3,500
Farrell* R 56  Central 0 0
O’Quinn R 5    Southwest 6,500 3,000
Yancey R 94  Tidewater 10,000 3,500
Ransone R 99  Northern Neck 8,500 2,500
Ward, J D 92  Tidewater 23,500 5,000
Filler-Corn D 41  NoVa 10,500 3,000
Kory D 38  NoVa 6,250 1,000
Bagby D 74  Central 2,000 1,000
  • Names appear in the order they are listed on the General Assembly website for each committee. In the Senate, this reflects seniority; in the House, Republicans come first, and then seniority.
  • *Peter Farrell is the son of Thomas Farrell, II, CEO of Dominion Resources. He gets no cash from Dominion and abstains on votes that directly affect the utility. Those who worry that the family relationship might keep him off the gravy train will be relieved to know his dear old dad gives his campaign $10,000 a year, and more than a dozen other top Dominion executives also pitch in hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece annually to make sure he stays on the public payroll.

Compared to whom?

One problem with singling out Dominion is that it is only the biggest and most conspicuous player of the influence game. It has plenty of company. Appalachian Power Company (APCo) also donates generously to legislators in leadership positions and those on C&L. And our utilities are not exceptions. Richmond is awash in corporate cash.

So let’s look at Appalachian Power Company’s top dozen Senate and House recipients in 2014-2015. We can compare these amounts to what these guys (all men again) received from Dominion and Altria, another large Virginia company that isn’t in the utility business. And just for fun, I’ve added columns showing donations from the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA and the environmental group Sierra Club.

Recipient Party APCo Dominion Altria MDV-SEIA** Sierra Club***
Sen. Saslaw D 20,000 57,500 27,500 1,000 0
Sen. McDougle R 15,000 10,000 26,500 0 0
Sen. Wagner R 12,500 26,885 10,500 2,500 0
Sen. Norment R 12,500 21,500 35,000 2,500 0
Del. Hugo R 10,000 11,000 2,500 500 0
Del. Cox R 10,000 29,099 0 0 0
Del. Kilgore R 7,500 35,000 2,000 0 0
Del. Miller R 6,500 7,500 2,000 0 0
Sen. Alexander* D 4,500 5,000 1,500 0 0
Del. Habeeb R 4,000 5,000 500 0 0
Sen. Obenshain R 2,500 5,000 1,000 0 0
Sen. Stanley R 3,600 9,000 6,000 0 0
  • *Kenny Alexander was a member of Senate Commerce and Labor in 2014 and 2015.
  • **MDV-SEIA donated to only five candidates in the 2014-2015 election cycle. In addition to the contributions shown, the association gave $2,500 to Delegate Villanueva.
  • ***Sierra Club-Va. Chapter made a total of $33,410 in campaign contributions during the 2014-2015 election cycle, but very few of its recipients sit on Commerce & Labor. Of those who do, Delegate Villanueva received the largest donation, $200. Sierra Club Legislative Director Corrina Beall notes that “most of Sierra Club’s donations are in-kind donations rather than cash donations. Our contributions are made in staff time spent communicating with our members and supporters about candidates who we have endorsed.”

What do you get if you’re not a big shot or on C&L?

Dominion gives to almost everyone; after all, bills that pass committee still have to go to the floor. I chose half a dozen lesser-known delegates at random to compare to the Commerce and Labor committee members. All have been in the General Assembly for at least six years.

Here’s what they got for the 2014-2015 legislative cycle. I threw in APCo and Altria for comparison.

$ From Dominion $ From APCo $ from Altria
Anderson, R (R) 2,000 275 1,000
Edmunds, J   (R) 1,500 0 1,000
Knight, B (R) 3,500 1,275 1,000
McQuinn, D (D) 3,750 1,500 500
Watts, V (D) 2,000 500 1,000
Helsel, G (R)* 0 0 1,000
  • *Helsel received $2,500 from Dominion in 2011-2012 but nothing since, and has never received money from APCo.

So the little people did about as well as the C&L members who aren’t on the energy subcommittee, but less well than the subcommittee members.

What does the money buy?

Legislators swear they don’t allow the money to influence their votes. And yet it seems obvious that donors expect that very thing. There’s a clear gap between what the donors think their money buys, and what legislators think they give in return. You might call this the “credibility gap.” And yet as I’ve observed before, if a few thousand bucks is enough to buy a vote, then the real scandal isn’t that legislators can be bought, but that they can be bought so cheaply. Obviously, there is more to it.

Defenders of unlimited campaign contributions like to think donors give money to candidates whose views they share, or to lawmakers who have done a good job in office and need the money to win election and continue doing a fabulous job. That seems to describe Sierra Club’s approach, but it certainly doesn’t describe Dominion’s. Dominion gives money to everyone, and almost none of the recipients need the money to stay in office.

According to VPAP, more than 50% of Virginia legislators ran unopposed during the last election. Only 10% of members had races that could be described as anything close to competitive (defined as a margin of less than 10%). Even if you totally approve of the job these legislators are doing, you don’t need to give them money to make sure they keep their seats. The only purpose of contributions to these members is to buy influence by helping them build power.

House Commerce and Labor Chairman Terry Kilgore, for example, has not had an opponent since 2007, when he took 72% of the vote. Yet since 2008, he has collected $135,500 from Dominion, among almost $2 million in contributions from all sources.

What does he do with all that money? VPAP shows that during the 2014-2015 season he spent some $80,000 on staff and political consultants, $50,000 on legal and accounting, $35,000 on fundraising (hello?), $23,000 on something called “Community Goodwill,” $22,000 on mail, printing and postage, $12,000 on “Legislative Session,” $11,000 on travel and meals, $28,000 on advertising, signage, and phone calls, and another $15,000 or so on other campaign-related things. All this for a part-time legislator running unopposed.

But the biggest expense Kilgore reported was not for his campaign, but for the campaigns of fellow Republicans. Donations to other candidates and party committees in 2014 and 2015 added up to about $174,000. Dominion’s money indirectly helps candidates who might have competitive campaigns; directly, it helps Kilgore build power and influence for himself.

We could do a similar analysis on the Democratic side with Senator Saslaw, who draws at least token opposition in every election but has never won by less than a 17-point margin. He still collected over a million dollars in campaign contributions in 2014-2015, and spent all but a fraction of it on donations to party committees and other candidates.

In both cases, and for all the other top recipients of Dominion’s cash, the campaign donations have nothing to do with candidates getting elected, and everything to do with securing the loyalty of legislative power brokers who, by doling out money themselves, can deliver the votes on Dominion-backed bills when needed. Rank-and-file legislators don’t vote for a Dominion bill because they got a $1,000 donation. They vote for a bill when their party leader tells them to, especially when that leader can remind them he’s helped direct tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.

And then there’s this troubling aspect . . .

I’d be remiss not to mention one other peculiarity of Virginia election law, which is that candidates are not prohibited from using campaign money for personal expenses. The Washington Post ran a series of outraged editorials about this a few years ago that is worth looking up (I wrote about it here). This same practice cost now-Vice President Mike Pence an election way back in 1990, when records showed Pence used campaign donations to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses. But here in Virginia, the Post’s revelations about Delegate Hugo paying his cell phone bills with campaign money produced neither repercussions nor changes in the law.

Some legislators introduce legislation every year to ban the use of campaign cash for private gain; every year it fails in an unrecorded subcommittee vote. See, e.g., Delegate Marcus Simon’s HB 1446 this year.

Why doesn’t anyone turn down the money?

It’s pretty hard to find legislators who don’t take Dominion’s money. The vast majority who do includes Senator Chap Petersen, who made news this year first by calling for a repeal of the 2015 boondoggle that will net Dominion a billion-dollar windfall at customer expense, and when that bill failed (in Senate Commerce & Labor, ahem), by calling for a ban on campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion. Petersen received $2,500 from Dominion in the 2014-2015 cycle, and another $1,000 in 2016. Of course, that was before the 2017 session brouhaha.

One legislator who has sworn off Dominion’s money is Delegate Rip Sullivan, an Arlington Democrat known for his bills to improve Virginia’s dismal achievements on energy efficiency—bills that Dominion opposes when they come before Commerce and Labor. (The only efficiency bill that passed this year is one from Senator Dance that merely requires tracking of energy efficiency progress. Sullivan’s identical House bill was killed in the House energy subcommittee.)

I asked Sullivan why he doesn’t take Dominion’s money. I liked his answer so much that I’ll give him the last word:

“I have very publicly made clear from the day I announced for the HOD that I would not take any money from Dominion. I have been equally clear that a major part of my agenda in RVA relates to climate and renewable energy–as you know, I’ve introduced numerous bills on renewable energy tax credits, community solar, energy efficiency, etc. . . .

“I have also made clear that I understand the reality that to make progress on these issues in the GA I will need to interact and hopefully work with Dominion. And I have tried to establish and maintain relationships there to hopefully facilitate dialogue, understanding and hopefully progress on environmental issues. But I never want there to be any question about where–or with whom–I stand on these issues, and I don’t want anyone questioning my motives or actions with any suggestion about getting money from Dominion. And, of course, I want Dominion to understand that I am not beholden to them in any way. Frankly, it’s just cleaner (pardon the pun) to not take Dominion money, and shame on me if I can’t find somewhere else anyway to raise the thousand bucks they’d give me.”

Where ethics and utility profits intersect, a stain spreads across the “Virginia Way”

Dominion buildingThe Virginia General Assembly has punted on ethics reform, preparing to pass watered-down legislation that does very nearly nothing. At the same time, legislators are about to pass a law that will cost Dominion Power’s customers more than half a billion dollars as a down payment on a nuclear plant that hasn’t been approved and isn’t likely to be built.

These are not separate issues.

Virginia has had an ethics problem since long before Bob McDonnell met Jonnie Williams. As many people have noted, the real scandal is how hard it is to break our ethics laws. So long as you fill out a form disclosing the gift, it’s legal for politicians to accept anything of value from anyone, to use for any purpose. By this standard, McDonnell’s biggest failure was one of imagination.

The legislation that appears likely to come out of the General Assembly merely puts a $250 cap on the price tag of any one gift, with no limit on the number of lesser gifts and no limit on the value of so-called “intangible” gifts like all-expense-paid vacations. The mocking of this bill has already begun.

Conveniently, the bill deals with a tiny side stream of tainted cash compared to the river of money flowing from corporations and ladled out by lobbyists. Corporations don’t usually give out Rolexes and golf clubs. Instead, they give campaign contributions. Here again, Virginia law places no limits on the amount of money a politician can take from any donor. Five thousand or seventy-five thousand, as long as your campaign reports the gift, you can put it in your wallet.

And here’s the interesting part: you don’t have to spend the money on your campaign. If gerrymandering has delivered you a safe district, you can use your war chest to help out another member of your party—or you can buy groceries with it. The distinction between campaign money and personal money is merely rhetorical. A spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

In an eye-popping editorial, the Post ripped into one Virginia delegate who charged his campaign more than $30,000 in travel and meals, and another $9600 in cellphone charges, in the course of just 18 months.

As with taking the money, the only rule in spending campaign funds is that you file timely paperwork showing what you spent it on; the reports are not even audited. The theory originally may have been that the threat of public disclosure would keep a gentleman from taking money from unsavory persons. If you took it anyway, the voters would learn of it and throw you out. How quaintly respectful of the energy and capabilities of voters! How pre-gerrymandering.

And how pre-corporation. The smartest companies today spread the wealth around: more to the legislators in charge of the important committees, less where they just need floor votes. The largesse is bipartisan, making everyone happy but the voters. Certainly, a legislator who accepts thousands of dollars from a lobbyist would be churlish to criticize the company writing the check.

So what do you call someone who pays for his meals out of the check he gets from a company?

How about, “an employee”?

Environmental groups and good-government advocates have long decried the influence of corporate money in Virginia politics. In their 2012 report, Dirty Money, Dirty Power, the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network documented the rising tide of utility and coal company contributions to Virginia politicians, coinciding with a series of votes enriching these special interests.

Dominion Power has consistently led the “dirty money” pack. As the single largest donor of campaign funds aside from the Republican and Democratic parties themselves, its influence in Richmond is widely acknowledged, even taken for granted.  Most legislators will not bother to introduce a bill that Dominion opposes, even if they like it themselves. Critics joke that the General Assembly is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Resources.

According to Dirty Money, Dirty Power, Dominion’s contributions to elected officials totaled $5.2 million from 2004 to 2011. The Virginia Public Access Project shows another $1.4 million in 2012 and 2013. The contributions overall somewhat favor Republicans, but often the contributions are so even-handed as to be comical, like the $20,000 each to Mark Herring and Mark Obenshain in the Attorney General’s race last fall. These contributions are not about supporting a preferred candidate; they are about buying influence.

Note that much of the donations don’t go directly to General Assembly members but to the parties’ PACs, which then dole out the money. This gives Dominion extra influence with party leaders—again, on both sides.

The result has been spectacularly successful for Dominion, which rarely fails to get its way. Bills it opposes die in subcommittee (witness this year’s bills to expand net metering). Bills it wants succeed.

That brings us to this year’s money bills. As you may have read here or in Virginia papers, Dominion has been “over-earning,” collecting more money from ratepayers than allowed by law. In the ordinary course of things, this would result in both a rebate to customers and a resetting of rates going forward to produce less revenue for the utility.

For Dominion, the solution is a bill that lets the company charge ratepayers for expenses it isn’t entitled to pass along under current law. (Indeed, in a nice touch, the bill actually requires Dominion to pass along these expenses.) Presto: it’s no longer earning too much, owes no rebate, and doesn’t have to cut rates.

In return, the ratepayers get the satisfaction of assuming the sunk costs of a new nuclear reactor that will probably never be built, plus whatever more money the utility spends on it going forward. I believe the technical parlance for this is “blank check.”

“But we must have nuclear,” our legislators murmur as they sign our names on the check. Um, why? Nuclear energy today can’t compete economically. Just last year Duke Energy gave up on two nuclear plants it had been building, after billing ratepayers close to a billion dollars in construction costs. (BloombergBusinessweek headlined its article on the subject, “Duke Kills Florida Nuclear Project, Keeps Customers’ Money.”)

Dominion itself understands the wretched economics of nuclear perfectly well; its parent company, Dominion Resources, just closed an existing nuclear plant in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, because it couldn’t produce power cheaply enough to attract customers. And that’s from a plant that’s paid for; energy from new plants is now more expensive than natural gas, wind, and even some solar.

Memo to Democrats: when the cheaper alternative is renewable energy, no self-respecting progressive signs on to nuclear.

The steadily falling price of wind energy, and more recently, solar energy, helps explain why nuclear is on its way out nationwide. The only nuclear plants under construction in the U.S. today are over budget and reliant on billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees.

Memo to Republicans: no self-respecting, Solyndra-bashing conservative signs on to nuclear.

The State Corporation Commission also understands the economic picture, and it has been skeptical of Dominion’s nuclear ambitions. On top of that, there are serious concerns whether a third reactor at North Anna could even get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the wake of the earthquake that shut the existing units for four months in 2011. (For a good short history of the North Anna reactors, including the fine Dominion paid in 1975 for hiding the existence of the fault line, see this article in the local Fluvanna Review.)

So there’s a pretty good chance that Virginia ratepayers will find themselves following in the path of Duke Energy’s customers, with many hundreds of millions of dollars thrown down a rathole and nothing to show for it.

The elected officials voting for this boondoggle, on the other hand, will have plenty to show for it, unfettered by rules of ethics.