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Major Democratic donor in Virginia aims to counter Dominion donations with his own money

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aerial Dominion Building

Dominion Energy building in Richmond.

A major Democratic donor is planning to counter what he calls “legalized corruption” at the Virginia General Assembly by putting up his own money to fund candidates who swear off donations from Dominion Energy.

Michael D. Bills, a Charlottesville investor who was one of the top donors to Gov. Ralph Northam’s campaign in the 2017 cycle, says he’ll offer thousands of dollars to sitting delegates and state senators who sign a pledge to refuse any money or gifts from Dominion and divest any personal investments in the company.

The Clean Virginia Project, housed in a new political action committee run by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello, will offer $5,000 per election cycle to participating delegates and $20,000 per cycle to senators, according to a news release that touted the initiative as “the largest such commitment ever made to level the playing field for Virginia consumers.”

The focus could expand to include non-incumbent challengers in the 2019 elections, when all seats in the House and Senate are up for re-election.

“Democrats and Republicans should represent their constituents and not powerful corporate interests, and Clean Virginia will be holding them accountable if they don’t,” Bills said in a prepared statement.

Bills — a former Goldman Sachs vice president who went on to oversee the University of Virginia’s investment arm and start his own asset management company — gave $566,000 to Northam’s campaign.

The promise of financial support for legislators willing to distance themselves from the energy giant comes during a critical policy battle over electricity regulation, signaling to wavering lawmakers that opposing Dominion may not be as daunting as it seems.

Populist voices from both parties are pushing back against what they see as Dominion’s efforts to buy legislative influence that shapes how the company is regulated and how the state handles sensitive environmental issues such as pipeline construction and coal ash disposal. Dominion officials have long argued their company is unfairly called a villain, singled out for scrutiny while offering relatively low energy costs.

“Isn’t democracy great?” Dominion spokesman David Botkins said in an email. “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.”

Bills would not specify how much money he’s willing to put into his new project. But he said he’s prepared to cover the costs for any lawmaker who signs on.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Bills has given a total of $1.34 million to political causes, including $170,000 to support the campaigns of Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring. By comparison, Dominion has given roughly $11.1 million since VPAP began tracking campaign finance data.

The state legislature is considering repealing Virginia’s 2015 rate freeze law that prevented state regulators from issuing refunds or lowering base rates while allowing Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to make millions in excess profits. Lawmakers are debating how much money should be returned to Dominion customers as refunds and how much Dominion should be allowed to keep and reinvest in the state’s energy infrastructure.

Bills seemed to time the announcement for maximum impact as a legislative deal brokered by Northam and backed by Dominion moves toward key votes.

“As a Virginia businessman, I am deeply troubled to see Dominion and its allies pass sweetheart deals that cost consumers money and send business opportunities fleeing to our neighbors,” Bills said. “I am putting my money behind my principles that corruption should not be legal here any longer and that 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.”

The left-leaning group Activate Virginia has already circulated anti-Dominion pledges. The group secured signatures from 74 House candidates last year, 13 of which were elected in a Democratic wave. But the Activate Virginia pledge didn’t come with a promise of a specific financial reward.

Bills will be Clean Virginia’s leading donor and chairman. The initiative’s co-chair is Veronica Coleman, a Virginia Beach pastor who ran in the House’s 84th District last year but came up short to incumbent Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach.

“We are glad to see that the tide is turning from monopolies towards consumers, but when they take $100 out of the pocket of a Virginia family and give them $20 to make things right, they should expect us to fight back rather than offer thanks,” Coleman said.

The contributions to candidates will come from the New Virginia Way PAC, which Perriello recently launched with a promise to support the re-election of delegates who have already sworn to forgo Dominion’s support.

In the Democratic primary against Northam, Perriello ran as a Dominion skeptic, saying he wouldn’t accept money from the company that has long bankrolled Virginia politics, giving to Republicans and Democrats alike.

Northam, who beat Perriello by almost 12 percentage points in the June primary, was more receptive to Dominion, accepting nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions from the company and another $50,000 for his inauguration.

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