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Nonpartisan Initiative Targets ‘Legalized Corruption’ In Virginia Politics

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By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Efforts to fight what some call “legalized corruption” in the Virginia General Assembly were announced Thursday by the Clean Virginia Project, a new nonpartisan initiative seeking to curb Dominion Energy’s financial influence on Virginia lawmakers.

The group called on lawmakers to refuse donations from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, and offered to make political contributions to those who pledge to do so. The project’s organizers said they hope to curb the energy giant’s political influence and hold lawmakers accountable for “representing their constituents - not corporate interests.”

Delegates who sign the pledge would receive an annual political donation of $2,500 while senators would receive $5,000 — a fraction of what they might otherwise receive from Dominion.

Donating more than $11 million over the past decade to Democratic and Republican candidates alike, Dominion’s influence on the Virginia’s General Assembly is unparalleled by any other corporations. For comparison, Altria — one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco and headquartered in Henrico — donated less than $7 million over the same period of time.

Legislators from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, received donations from Dominion throughout the 2017 election season. While Northam accepted more than $100,000 in campaign and inaugural donations from the company in 2017 alone, Cox has accepted donations totaling more than $220,000 between 1998 and 2017.

Dominion’s funding efforts are primarily derived from the corporation’s political action committee but often come together with donations by corporate executives like Tom Farrell II, the company’s chairman, president and CEO, and Thomas Wohlfarth, the senior vice president of regulatory affairs.

Michael Bills, a Charlottesville-based investor and prominent Democratic donor, is the key funder behind the nonpartisan group, which is housed within former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello’s new political action committee, New Virginia Way.

The Clean Virginia Project is only one instance of a statewide attitude change toward the relationship between major corporations and lawmakers. It coincides with national efforts to encourage politicians to reject financial support from the energy industry.

This pushback has caused tension between Dominion officials and the group, with officials arguing that their company is being unfairly targeted for making campaign donations that are legal.

“Isn’t democracy great?" Dominion spokesman David Botkins said in an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "People can do whatever they want to with their money — as long as it’s transparently disclosed on Virginia’s Public Access Project website, which we helped start in 1997 and have supported ever since."

But Bills calls the initiative “common sense” that will level the playing field in politics.

“Virginians should no longer have to pick up the tab for backroom deals like the one Dominion and its allies are trying to ram through our legislature,” Bills said.

The announcement comes in the wake of Senate Bill 966, a quickly moving bill that would repeal a hotly debated 2015 rate freeze and provide Virginia customers with a refund on what Northam has called an “overcharging” for power rates.

In addition, SB 966 would require Dominion to reduce power rates by an additional $125 million as well as investmore than $1.1 billion in energy-efficiency projects and energy assistance to low-income communities throughout the next 10 years.

The text of the Clean Virginia Pledge reads:

“I will take no money or gifts from Dominion Energy or its Political Action Committees (PAC), lobbyists or executives; and will divest from any personal stocks or investments in Dominion Energy.”

As of Tuesday, Activate Virginia reported that 21 Democrats running for Congress this year have signed the pledge.

“Everyone will tell you that Dominion’s money doesn’t impact their vote, but given the fact that almost nobody says no to Dominion, I think that’s pretty obvious it has a large aggregate effect,” said freshman Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas.

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