AP’s Latest Hit Piece: Journalism or Polemic?

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, thus 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 group is actively involved in influencing public opinion. Come to think of it, the Clean Virginia website does not say where its money comes from either. 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.

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 aren’t captured in any database.

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 to “break through the fake news and propaganda perpetuated by anti-energy groups like Clean Virginia and their ilk.”) 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) comparing the increase to that of other stakeholders, 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?”

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6 responses to “AP’s Latest Hit Piece: Journalism or Polemic?”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    As I have pointed out before, the whole reporting process is an absolute embarrassment – but Dominion Energy Virginia did file on time, did at least list bills it worked on by number. Not everybody does. That needs to change. In the case of my own report on behalf of my client, I did list the numbers of the various energy bills I worked on. That has been my practice for some time. And certainly them bringing me on for this one issue represented an increase in effort on their part compared to prior years. However my entire fee would not have paid for one TV ad by Dominion (well, maybe one or two placements tops).

    My opinion of the Clean Virginia effort was noted earlier – another embarrassment. It does not lobby, and does not need to file any campaign contribution reports until the first report after it gives money. That may happen soon. A fair question is has it registered as a political action committee with the State Board of Elections or the Federal Elections Commission. I may look that up in a second.

    Had Suderman pulled the lobbyist records on other groups that worked the bill, such as the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the state Chamber of Commerce, he might have added some details. None of them did TV, though – the big expense. And do not forget that once the initial bill was amended to include many of the things those groups wanted, many of them supported it! Or went neutral. The active opponents at the end could meet over one lunch table.

    I’ve been around the Capitol now for almost 40 years. That media and lobbying effort on the part of Dominion, which extended to every possible form of mass or targeted communication, has never been equaled in my observation. The return on investment for them far exceeded anything else than they could have done with that $1 million. I’m sure they really spent $5 million (never to be detailed due to the loopholes in the process) but the ROI is still astronomical.

    I look at all this as exhibit one for fixing the joke of an ethics process we have in Virginia, because that report only shows the tip of the iceberg – and that level of obscurity is perfectly legal!!

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Oh, and I’m sure the Dominion spokesman (he of the famous ice cream quote, which he has now equaled in pith) did not mean to include among the “fake news and propaganda” brigade the Attorney General of Virginia, the State Corporation Commission, or the various other major Virginia employers paying the bills for the law firms that make up the industrial user coalitions – who were warning (correctly) about the bill. And I guess I’ve been making up the story about them seeking to continue to base certain rates on federal tax inputs they knew to be wrong….more Fake News!

    Let me add in fairness that I can think of another lobbying effort that might have equaled Dominion’s in extent and expense, and that is the recent effort behind the Medicaid expansion push. Again – all the more reason we have to revisit the reporting requirements. (And that had darn good ROI for hospitals!)

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner


    You gotta love the right wing echo chamber (which I will not join.)
    Can an editorial in the Times-Dispatch defending the honor of Dominion be far behind? 🙂

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    So I have to ask – what is the motivation of the non-Dominion groups? Do they lobby so they can make more money for themselves? It’s pretty clear that Dominion lobbies for altruistic reasons..

    It’s not just the lobbying – it’s the “why” behind it.

    Dominion is in it for dollars and cents. What do the other groups
    hope to gain ?

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      No question my client’s motives have been equally economic – seeking the lowest cost price for electricity. I represented one of the largest users as I became immersed in this. The contest rages in front of the SCC, and increasingly it has moved to the General Assembly as VEPCO has sought to change the rules at the SCC. I do not have a client in this realm now and may never again, but I want to keep a strong spotlight on all of this. Now it’s a bit of a mission.

  5. Well it was indeed one helluva all-out TV blitz by Dominion to get GA approval for a bill in Dominion’s favor. I was not happy with the Bill or the blitz.

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