Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2016 10:28 am
By JIM NOLAN AND ROBERT ZULLO Richmond Times-Dispatch
Energy giant Dominion continues to invest heavily in an alternate form of power in Virginia: political power.
The corporation gave $100,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia in a lump sum check dated June 14, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in state politics. VPAP said it is the largest single donation since 1997 made by the corporation to a Virginia campaign committee or candidate.
Previously the company had donated $50,000 each to the inaugural committees of Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former Govs. Bob McDonnell and Timothy M. Kaine, according to VPAP.
“The $100,000 to the Virginia Democratic Party is part of our support for the national Democratic convention in Philadelphia,” said Dominion spokesman Ryan Frazier.
“We’ll also be supporting the national Republican convention in Cleveland. Part of our reason for supporting in Cleveland is we have a large presence in Ohio — we’ve been involved in that city since the 1890s,” Frazier continued. “ In Pennsylvania we also have a significant business presence as well.”
Frazier noted the company provided financial support to both major parties for their conventions in 2004, 2008 and 2012.
“We believe in the Democratic process and the political process and that’s one way we can be involved,” said Frazier.
The large corporate contributions raise eyebrows among political and government watchdog groups.
“It’s reasonable to infer that Dominion wants something,” said Dale Eisman of Common Cause, an advocacy group in Washington, referring to the DPVA and Republican donations. “That is a lot of money, and corporations are no different from you and me in that they typically don’t throw around a lot of money just for nothing.”
Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Emily Bolton said DPVA solicited the donation, and said the money will be used for “transportation for delegates, events, and other national convention-related activities.”
On the Republican side, Dominion, which has 1.2 million customers in Ohio, is one of the corporations on the host committee that helped Cleveland win selection as the convention site from the Republican National Committee. With that involvement comes an expectation of financial support.
In Virginia, where the energy company has its headquarters, Dominion is a major political player in the state’s politics, handing out roughly 4,400 donations to candidates and committees since 1997.
During that time, the state-regulated, investor-owned utility has been the largest corporate donor in the commonwealth, contributing more than $5.4 million to Virginia Republicans and related fundraising committees and $4.5 million to Virginia Democrats, with roughly $4.1 million in other contributions, according to VPAP.
By comparison, its nearest corporate donors, Altria and the Virginia Auto Dealers Association, have spent a total of roughly $5.4 million and $5.1 million respectively, according to VPAP.
In direct support to the state parties, Dominion has given the DPVA $485,748 and RPV $357,950.
The financial support comes at an important time for both major parties, which are in the midst of a presidential election cycle, and for the corporation itself.
As Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion often has major business before state agencies. At the moment however, Dominion is also currently in the midst of closing coal-ash ponds at four sites across the state in response to new federal regulations.
The state Department of Environmental Quality has issued permits allowing Dominion to discharge treated coal ash wastewater for its Bremo and Possum Point power stations into neighboring water bodies. The department is weighing additional solid waste permits for those stations and water and solid-waste permits for the Chesapeake and Chesterfield County stations.
The process that has drawn criticism from environmental groups and some lawmakers, who say the DEQ and Director David Paylor have not set rigorous enough standards for the utility.
Others have criticized Paylor for accepting a trip to the Masters golf tournament in 2013 paid by Dominion. Disclosure forms indicate Paylor attended a dinner, valued at more than $1,200, and as well as the pricey tournament on the power company’s dime, according to VPAP.
Last week, a coalition of nearly 60 organizations blasted Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who boasts a long history as a major fundraiser for the Democratic party, partly over his support for Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5 billion, 600-mile project that will be largely decided by federal regulators, though aspects of it will also be subject to state oversight.
Ken Schrad, a spokesman for the State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, said Dominion always has projects before the commission for approval, most notably of late a $140 million plan to bury about 400 miles of power lines to reduce outages during a storm. The project would result in about $6 more on customers’ bills, though the commission has yet to issue a ruling.
A bill that would have required coal ash to be excavated and stored in a modern, lined landfill rather than “capped in place” died in February on a 7-7-1 vote in a state Senate committee. The abstention was Sen. Rosalyn Dance, a Democrat whose 16th District includes the Chesterfield Power Station.
Dominion has been one of Dance’s top donors over the past 10 years, giving nearly $22,000 since 2006, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, though the donations had nothing to do with her decision to abstain, said Dance, a delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next month.
Environmental groups opposed to some of Dominion’s projects have not exactly sat on the sidelines financially, either.
During a three-year period from 2013-2015 that included the 2013 race for Virginia governor, the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club and Next Generation Climate Action and other environmental groups contributed more than $5 million to campaign committees and candidates to put their issues before lawmakers.
Dominion has also used its vast resources to build good will in the capital region and beyond, spending roughly $60 million in charitable contributions in the Richmond region over the past 30 years — including $15 million in Virginia in 2015 — according to Frazier. Investments in recent years include combined pledges of $7.5 million toward the Dominion Arts Center and renovation of the Altria Theater, and more than $1.25 million for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Philanthropy aside, the large sums spent by Dominion on politics leave watchdogs wary.
“Everybody knows that donations like this make the recipient more favorably disposed to open doors and provide access,” Eisman said.
“We would think of these as investments, and Dominion is the same. What we don’t know is what Dominion wants … and what’s expected.”