Times-Dispatch articles expose Dominion’s manipulation of government for its own enrichment—and that ain’t the half of it

Over the past few days the Richmond Times-Dispatch has run a three-part special report detailing Dominion Energy’s grip on the Virginia General Assembly and the company’s abuse of that power to enrich itself at the expense of its captive customers. Journalists Robert Zullo and Michael Martz examine how Dominion’s use of business and personal connections, campaign contributions and lobbying led to a series of laws that enriched the company and eroded the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.

And Dominion still gets off too easy.

But before we get into that, first let me praise the RTD for even running this series. As recently as a few years ago, the paper assiduously avoided printing anything critical of Dominion outside the narrow confines of letters to the editor. News articles almost invariably adopted Dominion’s messaging and quoted Dominion spokespersons with no effort at independent verification. A single quote from an environmentalist or other critic, buried deep in the text, represented the only nod towards journalistic balance.

This has changed, as the paper’s remarkable exposé demonstrates. Zullo and Martz are not alone; columnist Jeff Schapiro frequently criticizes Dominion in ways that would never have seen print before. Somehow the RTD’s editors have found their spine.

The authors don’t editorialize. They quote a wide array of insiders and observers, though the absence of voices from the environmental community is striking. The coverage of personalities is sometimes even positive; Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, for example, comes off more as an upstanding citizen than as a master manipulator.

Indeed, many of the critics interviewed for the series pull their punches. Most of those quoted are full participants in the “Virginia Way,” a system in which going along to get along is embedded in the political culture. They are careful when criticizing Dominion, unwilling to tar their colleagues and, perhaps, aware they owe their own professional success to the same system that got us into this mess.

Overall, however, Dominion is right to hate the hot white light of journalistic scrutiny. Corporate greed doesn’t look good in print when the readers are its victims, and Dominion’s machinations are recorded here in excruciating detail. They culminate in the passage of 2015’s SB 1349, the law stripping the State Corporation Commission of its authority to review utility base rates and order refunds until 2022.

Dominion positioned its bill as a way to “protect” customers from the costs of complying with the federal Clean Power Plan, but it was not hard to recognize the Clean Power Plan as a politically charged fig leaf. SB 1349 was always about letting Dominion keep excess earnings. The Clean Power Plan, after all, was not scheduled to kick in until 2022, when rates would unfreeze. Meanwhile, as one SCC commissioner estimates, Dominion will keep as much as a billion dollars of money it has not earned.

Yet by concentrating on the money, the RTD misses bigger implications. Dominion’s corruption of our legislative process doesn’t just mean consumers are getting ripped off. It means Dominion has been able to undermine efforts to reduce energy use, protect our electric grid, move to greater use of renewable energy, and free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Heck, under Dominion’s influence, elected leaders don’t even appreciate why these should be their priorities. Politicians genuinely think building fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will lower energy costs. (In case you missed it, they won’t.) This is the real damage Dominion does, that legislators don’t even know they’ve internalized the utility’s propaganda. This is the exercise of the “third dimension of power,” the hidden type of power described in former UVA professor Vivian Thomson’s recent book Climate of Capitulation.

As a result it doesn’t occur to our elected leaders to ask questions when Dominion promises to reduce carbon emissions while planning to build more fossil fuel generation. (The answer to the question is in the fine print; or if you prefer blunt speech, it’s a lie.)

These leaders acquiesce when Dominion lobbyists urge them to reject mandatory energy efficiency standards on the basis that Virginia has such low-cost electricity (wrong) that we can’t succeed at energy efficiency the way other states do (and anyway the SCC won’t let us, so we shouldn’t even try).

Dominion takes baby steps on renewable energy, and elected officials express their gratitude without noticing how dismally far behind our neighboring states we remain. (How kind of Dominion! Let’s give them some more money!) Democrats used to try to pass renewable energy mandates; they don’t any more. Dominion doesn’t like to be told what to do. So rather than fight and lose, legislators now say they don’t like mandates. That’s a true climate of capitulation.

In short, the people’s representatives pass bills Dominion wants, or reject ones Dominion opposes, and persuade themselves the legislature is in charge.

The RTD cites one especially telling example of this. “Since 1996, Dominion has been [Delegate Ken Plum’s] top political donor, contributing $105,750, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” Yet, “’I’ve never felt squeezed by them,’ Plum said of the utility’s lobbying corps. ‘I have felt informed by them.’”

That’s what you call good lobbying. The lobbied official never feels squeezed, just informed.

It’s obvious enough that Dominion distributes money to legislators from both parties because it expects to buy influence. Legislators know this, and many acknowledge that it works on their colleagues. As for themselves, however, they are certain they can take money without being influenced. Even Ken Cuccinelli, who advocates for the SCC to regain its authority over Dominion, dismisses the idea of banning campaign contributions from public utilities. (Mind you, he offers no other solutions.)

Voters are rightly more skeptical, as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Senator Chap Petersen’s proposals to repeal the rate freeze and to bar campaign contributions from regulated public utilities. Dozens of candidates seeking office this year have pledged not to take Dominion money, and according to the group Activate Virginia, 8 incumbents and 46 House candidates have promised to roll back the rate freeze.

In both cases, the question is why so few incumbents have signed on. Perhaps, after reading the RTD’s report, they will understand why they should. What’s at stake goes way beyond money.

Dominion Virginia Power ordered to refund $19.7 million to customers, but gets to keep a billion in future overcharges

"Keep counting, Mr. Farrell. There's a billion more where this came from." Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Valdemar-Melanko-1965 public domain.

“Keep counting, Mr. Farrell. There’s a billion more where this came from.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Valdemar-Melanko-1965 public domain.

The State Corporation Commission has ordered Dominion Virginia Power to refund $19.7 million to customers, reflecting excess earnings during 2013 and 2014. But according to the November 23 order, the company will not have to lower its rates going forward, due to its success last winter in getting a bill passed that freezes base rates and eliminates rate reviews until 2022.*

That legislation, SB 1349, was widely criticized (including by me) as a handout to Dominion. How big a handout is now clear: “over a billion dollars,” according to the calculation of Judge James Dimitri, one of the three SCC commissioners.

Writing in a partial dissent, Judge Dimitri called SB 1349 unconstitutional, noting that Article IX, Section 2 of Virginia’s Constitution explicitly assigns rate-setting authority to the SCC. Thus, said Dimitri, the SCC should give no credence to SB 1349, and consequently should order a refund covering 2013 and 2014, and follow normal procedure to lower base rates going forward.

A rate decrease is appropriate, according to Dimitri, because “The record in this case and other biennial review proceedings demonstrate that, when conventional rate standards are applied, there have been, and are projected to continue to be, excessive base rates that are being paid by Dominion customers. “

And again: “The trend of current rates producing revenues over cost and a fair return has been continuing. For 2015, the Commission Staff projects revenues over a fair return of $301 million, and $299 million for 2016. . . The current rate levels, which the Commission has not been authorized to adjust, are designed to produce and have been producing annual excess revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

As a result, concludes Judge Dimitri, “If base rates are fixed at current levels for at least the next seven years, earnings over and above the Company’s cost of service and a fair return have the potential to reach well over a billion dollars, at customer expense.”

The two other judges, Mark Christie and Judith Jagdmann, don’t address the constitutionality issue in their opinion for the majority. Indeed, it appears that none of the parties in the case raised the constitutional question in the proceedings, nor did any of the judges request briefing of the issue later, as sometimes happens.

Taking a cue from Judge Dimitri, however, on December 11 the Virginia Committee for Fair Utility Rates, one of the parties to the rate case, filed a Petition for Rehearing or Reconsideration, objecting to the commission’s order for failing to rule explicitly on the issue. The Committee asked for a hearing on the constitutional issue and asking for an order finding the provisions of SB 1349 unconstitutional.

Three days later, however, the SCC denied the petition in a second order, noting that the constitutional argument had not been raised during the rate case. Dmitri again dissented, saying he would grant reconsideration.

What happens now? Ordinarily any decision issued by the SCC can be appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court; but then, ordinarily you have to raise an issue during a proceeding before you can appeal it. It’s not clear whether the Court will agree to hear an appeal of these two orders if the Virginia Committee for Fair Utility Rates decides to pursue it.

With a billion dollars at stake, this is not an argument that should be ignored merely because it wasn’t raised in time. But there is also a reason the claim wasn’t raised earlier in the case: it’s a rate case looking backwards, not forwards, so the SCC didn’t actually have to address SB 1349.

Legal experts tell me that the Virginia Committee for Fair Utility Rates—or anyone else for that matter—can still challenge the constitutionality of SB 1349 by filing a new and separate case seeking a declaratory judgment from the SCC. A new case, with new arguments, yielding a decision on the merits, would most certainly be appealable to the Court.

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*The case is PUE-2015-00027. Links to documents on the SCC website work only some of the time. That counts as an improvement.

Criticism mounts over Dominion’s effort to lock in earnings, lock out audits

Dominion buildingSenator Frank Wagner’s bill to permit Virginia’s largest utility to keep its books closed until 2023 cleared a Senate subcommittee last week, but not without a bruising. What Dominion Virginia Power thought would be an easy sell—a promise to freeze rates at their current level—is being widely criticized as another money grab from a company known for resorting to legislative maneuvers to hang on to overearnings. As a result, SB 1349 faces an uncertain future in full committee today, and if it passes, should expect rough treatment on the Senate floor.

As I explained last week, the bill plays on fears that the EPA’s carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan will be costly to implement. According to Senator Wagner and Dominion spokesman Dan Weekly, ratepayers need protection from jarring rate increases.

Of course, if the Clean Power Plan were really likely to raise costs, a for-profit company like Dominion would hardly want to give up the ability to raise rates. Dominion’s eager embrace of a rate freeze puts me in mind of Brer Rabbit’s pleading not to be thrown into the briar patch.

Last year Dominion got away with legislation allowing it to keep hundreds of millions of dollars in over-earnings, catching the press, the new Administration and many legislators flat-footed. It may get away with it again this year, but it won’t be pretty.

For one thing, the press is fully awake this time around. Several papers raised questions, and a hard-hitting article in the Washington Post correctly reframed the issue as whether Dominion should be allowed to escape routine public financial audits. The Post article also hit one of my favorite themes, the outsized influence Dominion wields in the state due to the campaign cash it lavishes on Republicans and Democrats alike. But then it did me one better, noting that Senator Wagner owns stock in Dominion Resources.

An article in the Virginian-Pilot put the value of that stock at $250,000. [Update: a February 2 AP story put the value of Wagner’s stock at only $5,000. Regardless of the actual amount, on February 3, the AP reported that, in response to the story, Wagner sold his Dominion stock.]

Meanwhile the Capital News Service had caught on that the “rate freeze” actually puts a floor, not a ceiling, on utility bills. “Proposal would let Dominion hike electric bills,” ran the headline in multiple newspapers.

So when a small subcommittee of Senate Commerce and Labor* met to consider the bill on Thursday, it was not the easy pass that Senator Wagner and Dominion expected. Lining up against the bill were environmental groups, the Attorney General’s office, SCC staff, and the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council.

Even Senator Dick Saslaw, usually a reliable ally of Dominion, expressed his discomfort with the bill and told Dominion spokesman Dan Weekly that he had better answer the concerns that had been expressed.

But then Saslaw and the other senators voted to move it along. Apparently, just being a bad bill wasn’t enough to kill it.

Update: the full committee of Senate Commerce and Labor reported SB 1349 on a 14-1 vote, with only Senator Newman dissenting. Action now moves to the full Senate, which has many saner heads. But lest optimism get the better of us, I should note that pretty much all of them take Dominion money too.

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*This is the little hand-picked group I reported on that was supposed to form a joint subcommittee with House members to review all Clean Power Plan legislation. That’s not what happened. The joint subcommittee held two meetings that could best be described as EPA bash-fests, but only Wagner’s bill ended up assigned to the subcommittee, and only the Senate members met to consider his bill. The House members seem to have been unceremoniously dropped from the process altogether.

So what happened to the other climate bills? The Senate bills mostly ended up in Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the House bills mostly in Commerce and Labor (where they have been assigned to the Energy subcommittee). Why the change in plan? Beats me.