Dominion Energy’s tenfold increase in spending to influence Virginia politicians was prompted by the spread of “fake news and propaganda perpetuated by anti-energy groups,” a company spokesman said.
Recently filed disclosure forms show that the state’s biggest electric utility and most politically powerful company spent more than $1 million on lobbyists, entertainment, meals and communications from May 2017 to the end of April. That’s about 10 times what the company said it spent in last year’s filing.
The spending came during a period when the company successfully pushed through legislation that could result in substantial increases to electric bills.
Dominion spokesman David Botkins said the company’s stepped-up “education outreach” was needed “to break through the fake news and propaganda perpetuated by anti-energy groups.”
Most of the increase in reported spending was due to a boost in communications spending, which the company said totaled nearly $700,000. Dominion’s media blitz while lawmakers were debating the bill included a TV ad that ran during the Super Bowl.
Dominion had 22 registered lobbyists this past General Assembly session, a mix of full-time employees and well-connected hired guns. Dominion hired lobbyists from McGuireWoods, Reed Smith and Williams Mullen, three of the top lobbying firms in Virginia. The regulated monopoly also hired David Hallock, a close political adviser to Gov. Ralph Northam, as an outside lobbyist.
The $1 million figure likely does not include the full scope of the company’s efforts, as Virginia law requires only that a narrow definition of lobbying expenses be made public.
The company said it also spent $110,000 on entertainment, meals and events. The bulk of that went to a Dominion-sponsored awards ceremony for prominent African-Americans held at a Richmond hotel and attended by Northam and several lawmakers.
Long the dominant political player in state politics, Dominion has come under increased scrutiny because of its outsize political influence. Several newly elected Democratic House members have refused to accept the company’s political donations.
“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, a newly formed group devoted to countering Dominion’s political influence.
The spending paid off for Dominion, as lawmakers approved a sweeping overhaul of electric regulations despite warnings from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office and others that the law hurts customers.
Among many other things, the law gives Dominion new flexibility in accounting for costs that virtually guarantees its rates can’t go down.
The new law also allows Dominion to bury about 4,000 miles of power lines, which regulators estimate will eventually add $5 a month to an average residential customer’s bill. Experts have said the $2 billion project will translate to only a 0.00002 percent increase in reliability, while Dominion says the project has significant value for the state. New rate add-ons to pay for grid modernization and renewable energy project costs could add several dollars a month to typical residential bills.
Dominion has said the new law is customer-friendly, pointing to provisions that require Dominion to refund past overearnings and pass along savings from lower federal tax rates.