Here we go again.
The Associated Press’ Alan Suderman has popped out another context-free article making an issue of Dominion Energy’s tenfold increase in lobbying expenses over the past year to more than $1 million. That spending, writes Suderman, “came during a period when the company successfully pushed through legislation that could lead to substantial increases to electric bills.”
It is a legitimate exercise in journalism to report the lobbying expenditures of the state’s largest investor-owned utility, especially when it is as politically influential as Dominion and when the utility backed controversial and far-reaching legislation. But it’s not legitimate to strip the story of highly relevant context such as… oh, I don’t know… maybe, how much other stakeholders spent on lobbying, advertising, education and outreach.
If Dominion were alone in increasing its investment in influencing legislators, that would be one story. If, given the magnitude of the stakes involved, the utility’s spending was matched by the spending of other interest groups, that would be a very different story. Suderman did not raise the latter possibility in his article, creating a highly negative impression of Dominion — an impression he reinforced by quoting Clean Virginia, a group formed to counter Dominion’s political influence:
“It’s unfortunate that at a time when refusing monopoly money has become a hallmark of good governance, Dominion is doubling down on its political spending in an attempt to rig the rules in Richmond and mislead Virginians about the cost of their corruption,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia.
Suderman notes in passing that Clean Virginia is a “newly formed group.” Ironically, Clean Virginia does not yet appear in the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) database as a campaign donor, even though the organization has pledged to back General Assembly candidates who refuse Dominion money, nor as a registered lobbyist, even though the firm is actively involved in influencing public opinion.
Come to think of it, the Clean Virginia website does not say where its money comes from.
One guess is that some, if not all, of its funding comes from its founder and chairman, Michael Bills, a wealthy investment manager (founder of Bluestem Asset Management) from the Charlottesville area. But there is no way for members of the public to find out — Clean Virginia’s 990 filings have yet to show up in the ProPublica database of nonprofit companies.
While Clean Virginia is a cipher, Dominion details precisely how much money it contributes to political campaigns, whom it has hired as a lobbyist, how much it has contributed in gifts and entertainment, and (through other reports) how much, and to whom, its nonprofit foundation donates money.
The table above shows some of the groups in the VPAP database that have paid registered lobbyists over the past three years and might have had an interest, given their status as environmental or activist groups, wind or solar developers, or other stakeholders, in SB990, the controversial Grid Transformation and Security Act referred to in Suderman’s article. Thirty-one of the 47 groups listed do not disclose which bills they lobbied for. Please note: Dominion was one of those that did disclose.
Of the groups that did disclose specific bills they lobbied on at some point in the past three years, many chose not to do so every year. While some outspoken Dominion critics such as Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter reported their activity on SB990, others such as the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Southern Environmental Law Center did not.
There’s a real asymmetry at work: Dominion scrupulously documents its lobbying activities but other players in the burgeoning renewable-energy and energy-efficiency fields, not to mention some of the company’s most relentless critics, do not. Suderman calls out Dominion for its spike in lobbying-related activity but cares not a whit what others are spending or their refusal, for whatever reason, to be fully transparent about their activity.
Actually, there’s an even bigger asymmetry at work. While Dominion exercises its influence largely through campaign donations and lobbying, the company’s critics make their power felt by devoting resources P.R., education and outreach to influence public opinion — expenditures that do not need to be reported at all.
If it were possible to compile all the information needed to make a valid comparison, perhaps we would find that Dominion’s bolstered its spending by many times more than others did — although that would raise a different set of issues. Dominion spokesman David Botkins argues that the spending surge was necessary:
“In order to break through the fake news and propaganda perpetuated by anti-energy groups like Clean Virginia and their ilk, we stepped up our customer, share-holder, retiree and employee education outreach as part of the public and openly reported process. We’re pleased the League of Conservation Voters, NRDC and 13 other groups also supported the legislation which passed by a wide margin and was signed into law by the Governor.”
“We’re going to continue to work with legislators in a transparent way when they’re addressing energy issues, regardless of what special interest groups with opaque sources of funding like Clean Virginia have to say.”
Alternatively, perhaps we would find that Dominion’s spending increase was matched by others. We don’t know what we’d find until someone does the digging. But it is patently unreasonable to skewer Dominion for its spending surge without (a) noting the spending of other stakeholders in SB990, and (b) acknowledging that Dominion is being more transparent than many of its critics.
Biased journalism such as Suderman’s is what causes many Virginians to mentally discount whatever they read. “What is this reporter not telling me?” readers wonder. “Is this just a hit piece?”