Dominion Energy made over $1.3 million in contributions in Virginia in 2020 through its political action committee (PAC), according to its final quarterly report to the Virginia State Board of Elections filed this month. These contributions total three and a half times those that the company made in 2018, the last comparable year with both a special state legislative session and no major general elections. The donations favored the utility’s most loyal legislative allies on key committees and at least one new delegate, through both repeated contributions and large end-of-year handouts.
Virginia law prohibits legislators from accepting contributions during general sessions, a restriction aimed at preventing conflicts of interest. Legislators are, however, able to fundraise during special sessions, which are typically much shorter in duration and more narrowly focused. But the 2020 special session was an aberration, a nearly 85-day “all-you-can-eat legislative buffet that restyled the General Assembly as a mini-Congress,” as political columnist Jeff Schapiro wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
While many business-related PACs slashed their spending in Virginia amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Dominion availed itself of Virginia’s permissive campaign finance rules, nearly quadrupling its PAC contributions in 2020 compared to 2018, the most recent “off-cycle” year. The utility contributed more than $1.3 million to Virginia candidates, committees, and trade associations through its PAC last year, and approximately $370,000 in 2018, according to state campaign finance data aggregated by the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP).
The increased spending reflects even greater efforts by Dominion to buy influence with key regulators at a high-stakes moment, as the company is doubling down on its regulated utility business segment after the cancelation of its beleaguered Atlantic Coast Pipeline project and sell-off of its gas transmission and storage assets to Berkshire Hathaway last year. Dominion characterized this shift as a “strategic repositioning toward ‘pure-play’ state-regulated […] utility operations,” forecasting a 30 percent increase in its long-term earnings growth rate owing to the change. Its ability to deliver is more readily determined by the General Assembly than in other states, where utility commissions hold greater regulatory power relative to the legislature. Virginia’s legislature has frequently passed laws to dictate ratemaking issues to the Commonwealth’s utility regulator, the State Corporation Commission.
During the 2020 special session, utility policy became one contentious facet of the biennial budget debate. Virginia appropriators ultimately killed a proposal from Governor Ralph Northam that would have required the utility to return $320 million of the more than $500 million in excess profits it has taken from ratepayers in recent years to forgive the debt that Dominion customers have accrued during the COVID-19 crisis. According to a recent General Assembly summary report, that debt amounted to approximately $127 million from customers who were more than 30 days in arrears as of September 30. Many of the House and Senate appropriators are top recipients of Dominion money; the utility continued to contribute heavily to those legislators through the first three quarters of 2020.
Dominion continues pattern of giving through Q4 2020, latest campaign finance filings show
Many of Dominion’s fourth quarter contributions benefited the same appropriators, as well as members of the Senate Commerce and Labor committee, through which energy legislation must typically pass. (Key members of the House Labor and Commerce committee took in most of their Dominion receipts earlier last year.) Overall, General Assembly appropriators received $225,500 from Dominion in the fourth quarter and $484,000 in all of 2020; for commerce and labor members, those numbers were $145,500 and $466,500, respectively. The fourth quarter overlapped significantly with the special session; legislators passed the state budget on November 9.
The utility directed an additional $40,000 to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian (D-52), split across three donations, for an extraordinary year-total of $90,000 – nearly double the company’s contributions to the lawmaker in 2019, when he was up for re-election. Delegate Nick Rush (R-7), who is also on the Appropriations Committee, took in $15,000 from Dominion through his “Point of Friction” committee in the same period, on top of a $5,000 Dominion contribution to his delegate committee earlier in the year. House appropriator, former Speaker of the House, and 2021 gubernatorial hopeful Kirk Cox (R-66) received contributions to both his delegate and gubernatorial committees, totaling $15,000, in the final quarter of 2020.
On the Senate side, Dominion contributed $15,000 to Finance and Appropriations Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-32) during the same period. Senate appropriators Louise Lucas (D-18) and Mamie Locke (D-2) each took in $10,000 from Dominion in December, on top of the $50,000 each received from the utility earlier last year. Lucas also serves as Senate President Pro Tempore. Senate appropriator Tommy Norment (R-3), to whom Dominion had contributed $10,000 in July, received an additional $20,000 from the utility in the final quarter of the year.
Senate Majority Leader and Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Dick Saslaw (D-35), who is also a Senate appropriator, received two contributions from Dominion on the same day in December for a combined $25,000. Senate Labor and Commerce Committee member Lionell Spruill’s “People First” committee took in $20,000 from Dominion last quarter, atop the $50,000 Dominion gave to his delegate committee over the summer. Senators Lucas and Norment both serve on the Commerce and Labor committee, as well.
Dominion made most of its contributions to members of the House Labor and Commerce Committee earlier in 2020. Committee Chair Jeion Ward (D-92) received $50,000 from the utility. Committee member Lamont Bagby (D-74) got $32,500. An exception, Steve Heretick (D-79) received a $10,000 contribution in the final quarter of the year.
Commerce and labor committee action in both chambers will be required to advance proposed utility legislation during the current legislative session, which began on January 13. Bills have already been introduced to address customer refunds, Dominion’s ability to overcharge ratepayers in the future, the power of the State Corporation Commission to regulate the company, and rate reductions.
Dominion made further fourth quarter contributions to the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses ($35,000 and $15,000, respectively) and the Senate Republican Caucus ($5,000) – its second set of donations to each in 2020. The utility also contributed $20,000 to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Dominion contributes to lawmakers who defeat anti-utility contribution bill
The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee killed a bill last week to ban monopoly utilities from making political contributions to state candidates or committees. All ten of the senators who voted “nay” have accepted contributions from Dominion’s PAC, with nine receiving contributions from the utility in the fourth quarter of 2020. Some also received recent contributions from Dominion executives; Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-12) accepted a $2,500 contribution from Dominion Executive Chair Tom Farrell in October 2020. Similar bills to this year’s legislation, patroned by Senator Chap Petersen (D-34), have been defeated in past General Assembly sessions. (See above table for a full list of 2021 “nay” voters on the committee who have accepted Dominion contributions.)
Dominion seeks influence with new lawmaker through special election contribution
Dominion’s latest campaign finance filing also included at least one new recipient: Delegate Candi King (D-2), who won a special election in January 2021 to succeed gubernatorial contender Jennifer Carroll Foy. Carroll Foy stepped down in December in order to focus on her campaign for the 2021 governor’s race. Dominion contributed $10,000 to King in December.
Carroll Foy’s resignation offered Dominion an opportunity to seek new legislative influence, as she had previously refused to accept campaign contributions from the company, its executives, and lobbyists, according to a list maintained by Clean Virginia, a group that opposes utility corruption in the state’s politics.
Mum on changes to political contributions to election opposers, Dominion stands apart from peer utilities
At the federal level, Dominion’s PAC has contributed a total of $240,500 since 2016 to the 147 members of Congress who voted in favor of President Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics’ database analyzed by EPI. The utility increased its giving to those members with each election cycle through 2020, contributing $95,500 to their campaigns in the most recent round of contests.
In the wake of the violent January 6 attack on Congress fueled by election result deniers, some utilities and trade associations announced “pauses” in their PAC giving. Dominion has not announced any changes to its corporate or PAC contributions policies, and did not respond to EPI’s requests for comment on the issue.
In apparent support of the failed Republican effort to maintain control of the U.S. Senate, Dominion Executive Chair Tom Farrell also contributed $25,000 to the Georgia Battleground Fund in December 2020, according to federal campaign finance filings. The fund is a joint fundraising entity that was formed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to benefit former Senators Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA). Dominion’s PAC also contributed $5,000 to Perdue’s re-election campaign in November. Both Perdue and Loeffler publicly expressed doubt about the validity of the presidential election results.