Follow the Dark Money

Yes, it’s a legitimate story when Dominion spend big bucks supporting grassroots groups that favor the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Why isn’t it also a story when out-of-state billionaires underwrite pipeline foes?

We learn from the Washington Post today how Dominion Energy, its partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and the American Gas Association poured resources into groups called EnergySure and Your Energy Virginia to “whip up” a grassroots campaign in support of the project.

Quoting from a presentation made by Dominion executive Bruce McKay to an industry conference in Arizona last month, the Post described the scope of the effort:

As of early October, Dominion had compiled a “supporter database” of more than 23,000 names, generated 150 letters to the editor, sent more than 9,000 cards and letters to federal regulators and local elected officials, and directed more than 11,000 calls to outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia’s U.S. senators.

Pipeline foes criticize Dominion for its outsized influence in Virginia state politics, characterizing the pipeline conflict as a David vs. Goliath contest. “Dominion is by far more well-resourced,” the Post quotes Denise Robbins of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as saying. “What we have is public support and the will of the people who don’t want these pipelines in their communities.” Continues the article:

The protesters also have criticized Northam for failing to disclose that several members of his 85-person transition advisory team have ties to Dominion – a company that has given extensively to Virginia politicians of both parties, and in which Northam owns stock. Dominion and its executives gave Northam’s campaign more than $87,000 this year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Bacon’s bottom line:

The Post article highlights a legitimate story. Dominion is a dominant player in Virginia’s political process, and the public has a right to know how it conducts business. If Dominion, a regulated utility whose fortunes depend upon achieving favorable political outcomes, pours money into campaign contributions, lobbying and grassroots activities, that’s a fair topic of inquiry by the press.

What bothers me is that the Washington Post and other media show no comparable curiosity about Dominion’s opponents. What do we know about the groups contesting the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines? What do we know about the resources poured into the campaign to halt the pipelines? Where do these groups raise money for economic studies, cable television ads, and the organizing of protest marches?

To take a concrete example, what do we know about the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), the environmental justice-oriented group quoted by the Post, which has organized many of the anti-pipeline protests in Richmond?

Well, we know that the group is based in Takoma, Md., and maintains offices in Richmond and Norfolk. In fiscal 2015 it listed 22 employees. According to its latest 990 form and a 2016 audited report posted on its website, the group raised $263,000 in 2016 through contributions, another $1,043,000 through grants (including the release of previously restricted grants), and a nominal sum from other sources. While we know how much money it brought in, we don’t know where that money came from. Nowhere on its website, in its audited report, or its 990 form does CCAN reveal how many donors contributed, or who they were. Restricted grants (presumably from foundations) account for 80% of its revenue. Who is CCAN beholden to? The public doesn’t know. The Washington Post is happy to quote CCAN in its article but displays no curiosity about whose interests it serves.

Contrast CCAN to a true grassroots environmental organization like the Piedmont Environmental Council. The 2016 PEC annual report lists every donor — literally hundreds of them — who contributed $100 or more. The PEC makes no secret of the fact that its biggest backers of $100,000 or more include the Aqua Fund, the William M. Backer Foundation, the Loudoun Soil and Conservation District, Jacqueline B. Mars, Jean Perin, the Prince Charitable Trusts, and the Wrinkle in Time Foundation. It’s all there for the public to see and evaluate.

A look at the CCAN’s board of directors suggests that the group’s support comes mainly from Maryland and Washington, D.C., not Virginia. Only two of the 13 board members have identifiable Virginia connections: April Moore, vice-president of Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and Tony Noerpel, founder of Sustainable Loudoun. Another board member has West Virginia ties, and the rest hail from the Baltimore-Washington area. CCAN lays claim to “public support and the will of the people who don’t want these pipelines” in Virginia. But how do we know that it reflects the will of “the people” any more than does Dominion, which cites the support of construction unions, chambers of commerce, and economic developers?

We know where Dominion’s money comes from — from Dominion rate payers and shareholders. It’s pretty straightforward. We don’t know where CCAN’s money comes from. Could some or most of it come from out-of-state millionaires and billionaires who could care a fig about Virginia’s economic development?

A 2014 minority staff report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA,” reached the following conclusions:

  • The “Billionaire’s Club,” an exclusive group of wealthy individuals, directs the far-left environmental movement. The members of this elite liberal club funnel their fortunes through private foundations to execute their personal political agenda, which is centered around restricting the use of fossil fuels in the United States.
  • Public charity activist groups propagate the false notion that they are independent, citizen-funded groups working altruistically. In reality, they work in tandem with wealthy donors to maximize the value of the donors’ tax deductible donations and leverage their combined resources to influence elections and policy outcomes.
  • Far-left environmental activists, while benefiting from nonprofit status, essentially sell a product to wealthy foundations who are seeking to drive policy and political outcomes.
  • The Billionaire’s Club knowingly collaborates with questionable offshore funders to maximize support for the far-left environmental movement.

The “offshore funders” are associated with Russian energy interests who share the environmentalists’ goal of curtailing U.S. fracking of natural gas.

In their coverage of President Trump, Post reporters frequently allude to findings of the U.S. Intelligence community, in particular the report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” which argued that Vladimir Putin-directed initiatives aimed at discrediting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. But I have yet to see the Post cite the passage that says RT (formerly Russia Today) ran anti-fracking programming highlighting environmental issues and the impact on public health. The anti-fracking stance, states the report, “is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability.”

Ken Stiles, a Virginia Tech geography instructor who used to work for the Central Intelligence Agency, has traced the flow of dollars from Russian energy interests through the Bermuda-based Klein Fund to the California-based Sea Change Foundation, and then from Sea Change to the Charlottesville-based social/environmental activist group Virginia Organizing. Virginia Organizing provides administrative support for anti-pipeline groups such as Preserve Montgomery County and the Friends of Nelson County. (This article in the Daily Signal provides the details.)

Virginia Organizing, which describes itself as “a statewide grassroots organization dedicated to challenging injustice by empowering people in local communities,” had a 2015 budget of $4.5 million. The group did not acknowledge the fact that it was a recipient of Sea Change Foundation money in either its website or its 990 form.

Stiles approached Bacon’s Rebellion before he contacted the Daily Signal. While I was intrigued by his findings, I thought it was a stretch to link Russian anti-fracking money with what appeared to me to be genuine, NIMBY-inspired grassroots groups like Preserve Montgomery County and the Friends of Nelson County. There was no way to know where the Russian money went once it reached the Sea Change Foundation. In all likelihood, I felt, the Russian money was so co-mingled with the contributions of rich American donors that it was meaningless to trace a trail from Russian oligarchs to an organization like Virginia Organizing, much less to groups one step removed from Virginia Organizing. I think Stiles got impatient with my journalistic standards of proof, so he went to the conservative Daily Signal instead.

Still, I believe that Stiles raised an important pointMuch of the anti-pipeline money in Virginia comes from wealthy out-of-state environmentalists (with a few rubles mixed in). These big donors have funded an archipelago of grassroots groups dedicated to fighting fracking and natural gas pipelines across the country.

When Dominion spends money supporting grassroots movements to influence public policy, yes, that is a news story. When out-of-state billionaires spend money, an unknown fraction of which came from Russian energy interests, to support grassroots movements to shut down fracking and pipelines, that is a news story, too — just not one that the Washington Post is interested in telling.

Virginians have a right to know who is influencing the public policy process in their state, and how much these shadowy interests are spending. It’s easy to follow the dollars going to campaign finances because campaigns are obligated by law to report them. Thus, we know that California billionaire and global warming activist Tom Steyer funneled almost $1 million through his organization NextGen Climate Action into Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s gubernatorial campaign this year, and $1.6 million into Governor Terry McAuliffe’s campaign four years before that. But there are millions of dollars of dark money sloshing around Virginia through social-justice and environmental foundations and activist groups which go mostly unreported. The public has a right to know where all the money is coming from and which groups are beholden to that money.

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25 responses to “Follow the Dark Money”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I have not read the Post story because at this point in the month I’m out of free access. From some of the other blog commentary, I assume one question is did Dominion use my money, as a ratepayer, to pay for this political effort on behalf of what is supposed to be a separate, subsidiary operation – the pipeline. Because the General Assembly has neutered SCC oversight and the SCC’s authority to prevent Dominion from using ratepayer money improperly, it is a legitimate question. I don’t believe the groups on the other side you are pointing too are regulated monopolies which are overcharging their customers (me) $400 million a year – so it ain’t the same at all, Jimbo. As you know I am not opposed to the pipeline, but I would be furious to think ratepayer money was funding that PR effort.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    This has the look and feel of yet another one of those right wing conspiracy theories to be honest.

    Wild accusations along the lines of “prove you did not receive Russian money”!!!

    The things are tiresome and just downright wacky.

    There’s an article in Politico that gets into the issue a bit – from both perspectives:

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Actually it is that famous debaters trick called the “red herring”, which in this case is even more appropriate. This is the kind of behavior that has earned the company a new nickname…

      Been waiting for an excuse to use that link :).

      1. Steve, what’s the red herring? What’s the distraction?

        I fully acknowledge in my post that reporting on Dominion’s influence on the political process is a legitimate story, and I re-publish quotes from the Post article documenting Dominion’s influence.

        Are you saying that uncovering the dark money funding certain environmental groups is NOT a legitimate story?

  3. The above two comments capture my thoughts and reaction to this post. The two sides in the fracking/pipeline dispute are hardly equal in funding capabilities or political influence. Jim’s right that the CCAN should publish its donor sources, as PEC and most national environmental NGOs do. After all, we want to know if the Russians are funding them!! But these NGOs are not regulated, rate payer-funded entities intended to serve a public purpose, like Dominion. That Dominion funds its fracking/pipeline desires with rate-payer money is surely a more egregious abuse of its power than the work of an NGO whose funding sources are not public.
    Interestingly, a lot of people up here in Loudoun have been strongly against the fracking/pipeline out of concern for global warming, which is not a purely Virginia concern! Why shouldn’t residents from north of the Potomac be concerned about this proposal?

    Yes, there are public information issues to address, but they aren’t much of a story, as the Post knew. So making this case honestly requires a deeper look into what will best make our democracy work — most immediately to address corporate engagement in p0litical/governmental decisions. Best to carry on without tinges of the right-wing conspiracy theories that increasingly bedevil fruitful dialogue.

  4. djrippert Avatar

    This why it’s called a swamp.

    1. Dominion clearly exerts excessive political power in Virginia. This would be absolutely forbidden in many other states.
    2. Our corrupt and opaque General Assembly is only too happy to take Dominion’s money and hand out favors in return. They operate under a state constitution that in MOST election years all but guarantees the re-election of incumbents.
    3. The neutering of the SCC was a particularly egregious activity of the General Assembly. Truly shameful.
    4. Multi-billionaires amass personal wealth many times greater than would be needed to ensure the prosperity of their progeny for many, many generations. Unsure of what to do with their excess wealth and fueled by immeasurably large egos they bastardize US tax law and set up “foundations” which allow them to exert personal influence over US politics and government. This personal influence is far, far beyond what any single citizen (un-elected to any office) ought to be able to exert. While there are examples on both sides of the political spectrum these self-appointed kings of America tend to have more liberals than conservatives. Our corrupt and opaque US Congress enables this by allowing unlimited tax exemptions to the funding of these foundations.

    Dominion and their ilk like to operate in the shadows. They try to hide in plain sight. Deals are made in the backrooms of dank pubs along the dark alleys of Richmond. Like cockroaches, they fear nothing more than light.

    The left tends toward loud, dishonest propaganda. They tout themselves as champions of the little guy working in grassroots organizations. All the while, their hands are deeply into the pockets of George Soros and other billionaires who have grown tired of chasing money and now want to chase political control.

    The whole system is a wreak. It hasn’t been right vs left in decades. It’s elite vs non-elite. On one side the Clinton Crime Family, on the other the Koch Brothers. When the dust settles they’ll both be richer.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      “The whole system is a wreak. It hasn’t been right vs left in decades. It’s elite vs non-elite.”

      I agree. The dynamic today is not so much between political parties as it is between the America’s elite and non-elite.

      John Adams predicted our constitutional system’s likely inability to control abuse and takeover by America’s elite. This issue was at the core of his disagreements with Jefferson that continued after the pair began exchanging letters after around 1810 and lasted until their deaths on July 4th, 1826.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I know lots of people who believe everything they read in the Washington Post.

    And I know lots of people who refuse to believe anything they read or are told unless they have read it in the Washington Post.

    I also know lots of people who read the Washington Post every day, and who read nothing else of any consequence but the Washington Post.

    And I also know lots of people who have read nothing but the Washington Post since they graduated from school.

    It’s likely too that the Distraction Energy Video is a Washington Post plant intended to ride shotgun for the Washington Post’s last Dominion Energy story.

    We need to have the US Department of Justice launch a Special Prosecutor to get to the bottom of all of this, and we also need a US Federal Congressional Committee Investigation to get to the bottom of all this.

    Just imagine what is going on here: The Washington Post is writing mostly fairy tales everyday and the Washington Times can’t get a word in edgewise.

  6. First of all, there’s a conflict of interest for this article as the ad for Dominion Energy sponsorship is right next to this obviously pro Dominion post.

    Dominion is a member of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
    For folks who don’t know what ALEC is and does, it’s a consortium comprised of conservative legislators and privately owned corporations who work together to draft “model” legislation, introduce these drafts into state legislatures to be voted on to become state laws. ALEC’s motto is “Limited Government, Free Markets, Federalism.”

    ALEC receives money from conservative free- market billionaires such as Charles and David Koch, Betsy DeVos, Sheldon Adelson, etc. and there are several Virginia legislators who are either current or former members of ALEC. (Note: there’s also a local version of ALEC called ACCE–the American City County Exchange).
    Dominion Energy is a member of ALEC.

    I posted an article on Daily Kos a month ago about Dark Money’s influence in politics and our democracy. Especially the Koch brothers/Koch Industries are massively instrumental in reshaping our country:
    Dark money is FAR more pervasive in (right-wing) conservative and corporate circles than it is in “liberal” causes (saving the environment, preserving a free press, making sure our food and water are safe, etc.). There is simply no way to “carry on” any longer without awareness of how tied to conservative and corporate causes dark money is.

    1. Kafka, how do you know that dark money is more pervasive in conservative/corporate circles than it is in liberal circles? Liberals have been making an issue of Koch Brothers dark money for a long time, and liberals have done a lot more research on conservative sources of dark money than conservatives have done on liberal dark money, and liberals have a bigger, louder media megaphone. But what do we actually know?

      Assuming you actually believe what you say — that conservatives benefit a lot more from dark money than liberals — would you support legislation that requires all nonprofits and foundations to reveal where their money comes from?

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Dark money is and will be as pervasive, on all sides, as the law allows it to be. Money funding lobbying efforts should be disclosed in a timely manner. Activists on both sides are total hypocrites when they whine about the other side. My point, my concern, to stretch to a bad pun is the “light” money – the money being made off my light bill being used to fund a pipeline PR effort when the pipeline is supposed to be unrelated to the power company. And the inability of the SCC to exercise its constitutional authority to prevent that.

        1. Steve, You raise an interesting issue regarding the possible subsidy of ACP lobbying/PR efforts by the rate payers of Dominion Virginia Energy. If that could be shown to be true, I would agree with you, it would be scandalous.

          However, it is my understanding that Dominion Transmission (which is the Dominion arm involved with the ACP) is a subsidiary of the parent company Dominion Energy and any money invested in the ACP lobbying/public relations effort comes from Dominion Transmission.

          ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby is an employee of Dominion Energy and/or Dominion Transmission — not Dominion Energy Virginia.

          Dominion Energy Virginia spokesman David Botkins and those who work with him are not involved in any way, shape or form with the ACP effort. They will always refer any questions about ACP to Ruby.

          If you have information to support the idea that money from your light bill is subsidizing the ACP effort, please reveal it.

          1. Steve Haner Avatar
            Steve Haner

            I have now read the Post piece and in no way did it report or even allege that ratepayer money was directly funding the pipeline PR effort. I have no way of knowing and perhaps I threw out my own red herring – but the profits from DEV flow up to the parent company, and money is fungible. Right now thanks to that “SCC Oversight Freeze” IMHO the utility is earning and keeping excess profits, it is making spending decisions the SCC might otherwise object to, and money is fungible. I would have zero concerns if the SCC had its old powers back. As a bit of spin doctor myself, however, I stand by my opinion that throwing the Russians into the discussion was a classic red herring tactic….once I read the Post piece, my response was – well duh, who would be dumb enough to think real disinterested individuals giving their pocket change paid for those ads, mailers and lobbyists??

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Don’t like The Washington Post, huh? I actually had this news earlier in a blog posting:

    Anyway, it is no secret that some rich people like George Soros and Michael Bloomberg put their money where they like. So do the Brothers Koch.

    But it is strange to have big trade associations pretend that their views are being posted by the “little” people out there. There is no doubt in my mind that many who oppose the ACP are sincere. I have been int heir homes. I have been shown how the pipeline will affect them. I really doubt that a regional green group such as CCAN is some kind of diabolical plot and is somehow hiding its real backers. Are people not supposed to have the right to organize and voice their views? Another false equivalency.

    Anyway, even suggesting Russian funding in the anti-fracking movement is a bit of a stretch. There is no question that shale gas and oil undercut Russian oil sales, but they also cut OPEC sales and prices. Shale gas and oil are worldwide phenomena. In the U.S., they stretch from North Dakota’s Bakken fields to Eagle Ford in Texas to Marcellus in Pa and W.Va. Fracking did take a hit when prices got so low that it was too expensive to drill. But to say the Russians are funding some Blue Ridge groups is preposterous and sooooo provincial.

  8. “Even suggesting Russian funding in the anti-fracking movement is a bit of a stretch.”

    So, you’re willing to believe (with good reason) that the Russians are willing to meddle in American elections, not to mention the politics of innumerable European countries, but they’re not will to protect their vital energy interests with similar forms of meddling? Really?

    If you want more specific information on how Russia energy interests funnel money to Sea Change Foundation, read this letter from Congressmen Lamar Smith and Randy Weber to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Scroll down to page 3 where the letter details the role of Bermuda-based Klein Ltd. and the Wakefield Quin law firm.

  9. When I lived in New Jersey and was fighting coal plants in the 1990’s, I had similar complaints about the Utility/State Legislature team work.

    Strikes me though that the intense bashing Dominion gets from Va. eco groups is just simply over-the-top in super-negativity. Makes me fear what former Rep. Tom Davis said the other day, Virginia is becoming more like blue New Jersey, and if we do not watch out we’ll go right past the NJ-stage to the California version of deep blue.

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I really don’t need a lesson on how Russians try to manipulate energy prices. They’ve been doing that for years. But to paint them as secretly funding Blue Ridge farmers and retirees is just plain stupid.

    1. I hope you noticed the part where I wrote: “I thought it was a stretch to link Russian anti-fracking money with what appeared to me to be genuine, NIMBY-inspired grassroots groups like Preserve Montgomery County and the Friends of Nelson County. There was no way to know where the Russian money went once it reached the Sea Change Foundation. In all likelihood, I felt, the Russian money was so co-mingled with the contributions of rich American donors that it was meaningless to trace a trail from Russian oligarchs to an organization like Virginia Organizing, much less to groups one step removed from Virginia Organizing. “

  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Also, Jim,

    If you are so keen on sticking it to Moscow, one way is to put solar panels up EVERYWHERE rather that erect a $5.5 billion pipeline that likely is not needed in an economic sense.

    1. My blog post was not about “sticking it to Moscow.” It was about transparency.

      Do you believe we should have transparency in how all “grassroots” money is spent and where it comes from? Or are you interested only in transparency for corporations and regulated utilities?

  12. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    As my mother too often told me: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” Subject to the Supreme Court’s limitations in the old NAACP v. Alabama case, all donors and donations to any organization involved in public policy should be recorded and publically available.

    And we’d all be better off were the General Assembly to bar contributions to any election campaign or public relations effort designed to influence public policy from any person or organization that is not from Virginia. Congress should authorize this for federal elections as well. Similarly, Congress should prohibit any organization from having tax exempt status when it spends money to have lobbyists influence the public policy arena. If a non-paid volunteer for a tax-exempt organization works to advance the organization’s agenda, let it alone. But once the organization pays an employee or third-party agent to do the influencing, the organization becomes taxable.

    Drain the D.C. and Richmond swamps.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Well, Jim,, let’s break this apart.

    (1) privately held corporations do not have to disclose much.
    (2) Publicly held companies do.
    (3) regulated utilities with monopoly power most definetly should be extremely transparent
    (4) advocacy groups that are non profits must follow the disclosure rules for non profits.
    (5) If not non profit, then no, they don’t have to disclose much.

    As usually, you are putting forward some false equivalencies.

  14. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: false equivalencies… yepper…

    I think when I see Jim Bacon DEMAND that ALL Dark Money in elections be “transparent”.. I’d be more accepting of his hand-wringing about “dark” money in pipeline issues ESPECIALLy when that whining seems to be coming from Dominion… which would make it the mother of all hypocrisies!

    Nothing is more corrupting than dark money in our elections – free speech they call it….

    aside from that – the idea that the Russians are “secretly” funding environmental groups.. and there ought to be “transparency”.

    that’s a totally different fish from elections.. but I’d be fine with ANY law or rule that applies to ALL money – no exceptions.. I’d LOVE to know more.

    Something else – there is a distinct difference between 501(c) 3 or 501(c)4 groups… and you’ll find if you look .. that it’s not environmental groups but election PACS that inhabit the 501(c)4 realm and it is NOT tax deductible but legally they don’t have to disclose their donors.

    Anyone who really wants to prioritize here – should, in m view, focus on campaigns and elections before they worry about pipelines or to be it another way – .. if they worry about pipelines but don’t even whimper about elections… well.. not impressed…

    1. I’ve always been in favor of full transparency for campaign contributions, lobbying expenses, and gifts to politicians. But that’s not the only way corporations and other special interests influence the political process. The public should know how much corporations, unions, and advocacy groups spend on “education” and “grassroots” efforts, and the public should know where that money is coming from.

      If the Koch brothers are dropping a million dollars into a grassroots campaign, we should know about it. If George Soros or Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg is, we should know about it. Sometimes the millionaires and billionaires are forthright about what they’re doing. Often, they’re not.

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