Virginia state Capitol Building

Virginia state Capitol, photographed from the roof of the SunTrust Bank building.

One of the state’s biggest law and lobbying firms will no longer give money to Virginia lawmakers unless they also accept money from one of its clients, Appalachian Power Co.

The unusual move by Hunton Andrews Kurth, formerly Hunton & Williams, affects lawmakers who signed a pledge by the group Activate Virginia saying they will not accept campaign donations from the state’s two large, regulated energy monopolies: Dominion Energy and Appalachian.

Because the Virginia General Assembly regulates the two public-service corporations, the pledge is intended to avoid the appearance of undue influence on lawmakers.

Thirteen Democratic lawmakers who signed the pledge were elected to the state House in November. Some of them also swore off any corporate donation, so they wouldn’t have accepted money from Hunton Andrews Kurth anyway. But other Democratic lawmakers recently were notified of the firm’s decision by Trevor Southerland, executive director of the House Democratic Caucus.

The response from some lawmakers? Fine with us.

Del. Kelly Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, who won last year on a platform of removing the influence of money in politics, said she’s happy to discuss policy with lobbyists without a corporate donation.

“I don’t think I need a campaign contribution to utilize the services of a lobbyist,” she said.

Whitt Clement, a Democratic former member of the House who heads the state government relations practice group at Hunton Andrews Kurth, said the lawmakers who don’t accept contributions from Appalachian Power Co. are being shortsighted because the company is an important corporate citizen in Virginia. The decision to stop campaign donations from Hunton to those lawmakers was made by his team, he said.

“Our state government relations practice group feels a high sense of loyalty to all of our clients,” he said. “We have represented Appalachian Power for the last 10 years or so, and [works] with members of the General Assembly on legislation of importance to Appalachian Power as we have for a number of other clients.

“The unusual step of [lawmakers] automatically refusing to accept contributions from a client has caused us to hold back our contributions to those same legislators.”

But he added a caveat: “This matter has not been thoroughly vetted in view of our other clients. So I think it is safe to say that we will continue to evaluate our position.”

Scrutiny of the relationship between Virginia’s elected officials and Dominion and Appalachian Power increased after the GOP legislature passed, and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed, a 2015 law that temporarily stopped the State Corporation Commission from ordering refunds to customers if the two corporations earned more than an agreed-upon profit.

Faced with political pressure stemming from overearnings, Dominion ushered through new legislation this year, signed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in March. But the new law faced opposition from lawmakers of both parties, in part because it allows the utilities to deduct money spent on projects from their overearnings, making it more difficult for customers to get refunds.

Freshman Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, said Hunton’s decision surprised her and is contrary to a popular narrative that lobbyists want to work with and help lawmakers.

“It seemed contrary to how the lobbyist/legislator relationship was explained to me and felt intimidating,” she said by email. “But at the end of the day I was elected to represent my district’s interests; irrespective of lobbyists’ dollars I want to make good public policy and will work with them either way.”

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, one of the lawmakers who already won’t accept money from any corporation, said the move by the firm represents corporate influence in Richmond. And lawmakers should welcome it, he said.

“Anything that diminishes the influence of large corporations over Virginia politics is fine by me,” he said.

Josh Stanfield, executive director of Activate Virginia, said the move by Hunton — regardless of motive — should be considered positive.

“If there’s one less lobbying firm giving one less dollar to one less legislator, that’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “From my point of view, it’s almost like a concession.”

John Shepelwich, a spokesman for Appalachian Power, said the company did not request the move by Hunton but supported it.

“Hunton has provided positive support to Appalachian Power and its many other clients over the years,” he said by email. “We rely on the firm for its decision-making capabilities and trust that this decision was made with all the same thoughtfulness to which we have become accustomed.”

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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