Watchdog Report: Link between utilities charitable giving and political influence

Updated: Dec. 10, 2019 at 8:07 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A utility watchdog group published a report Tuesday, which claims some of the nation’s biggest utility companies are using charitable donations for political gains.

The report, published by the Energy and Policy Institute, examines 990 forms filed with the IRS and reports filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission between 2013 and 2017. Of the 10 utilities assessed in the report, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, both of whom serve customers in South Carolina, were analyzed.

The report suggests the utility companies use their charitable giving to manipulate politics, policies, and regulations in ways designed to increase shareholder profits. It also claims the political influence comes at the expense of low-income communities.

Between 2013 and 2017, the report estimates Dominion Energy gave $105,972,472.00 in charitable donations. During the same time period, Duke Energy is estimated to have gifted $306,482,338.00.

In all, the 10 companies donated more than $1 billion in that five-year time period, which researchers said is 13 times greater than the $78 million the entire utility sector contributed to federal elections in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Researchers said they identified several trends between non-profits receiving donations from utility companies and the likelihood of the non-profits taking future political action in favor of the utility. The utilities’ giving was also found to help their general public relations efforts. One example provided in the report was a large check presentation in favor of a non-profit in which the media was invited.

The EPI also points to evidence of current or former executives with the utility companies being involved in charitable contributions. In the report, it points to Katharine Bond, the executive director of the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation. The report states she is also the senior policy director for Dominion Energy and a registered lobbyist for the company.

The report found four main avenues in which it asserts utilities use charitable giving to influence politics; grantees weigh in on political matters in support of utilities; utilities give to organizations connected with or favored by important policymakers; utilities use philanthropy to suppress resistance and dissent and utilities use charities to extort support from low-income communities and communities of color.

“This is not just putting your name on the back of someone’s YMCA jersey, so to speak, but actually asking for something in return,” Daniel Tait, a researcher with Energy and Policy Institute, said. “At the end of the day, it comes back to the ratepayer. So the question that you as a customer of these companies have to ask is, do these actions…is that where you want your utility bill to end up?”

Dominion Energy released a statement in response to the report which reads in part:

“Dominion Energy is proud of our long history of generous giving to support a wide range of charitable programs in the communities we serve. The review and selection process is neutral and unbiased.”

Duke Energy, also featured in the report, released this statement:

“Duke Energy is proud to make charitable contributions in the communities where we live, work and serve, as well as to participate in public discourse on important policy matters that affect our customers and our company. The dollars used to fund these efforts are currently, and will continue to be, funded by shareholders – not customers – in accordance with the law.

It’s a new low for special interest groups to target philanthropic giving to people and organizations dedicated to helping others. We are proud of every dime invested in our communities. And in this holiday season, we ask groups like the Energy and Policy Institute to remember the less fortunate and the incredible impact nonprofit organizations make in the lives they touch.”

The report did not include any examples of possible political influence due to charitable giving within South Carolina in particular. Dominion finalized its merger with SCANA in January of 2019.

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