Fact one: Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill, written with help from Dominion Energy Virginia lawyers, to end the electricity rate freeze and alter how electric utilities are regulated.
Fact two: In his day job, Bagby is director of Operations for the Peter Paul Development Center, a nonprofit that provides after-school programs and summer programs for poor children in Richmond’s East End.
Fact three: Thomas Farrell, CEO of Dominion, agreed in June 2016 to make a $100,000 donation to a Peter Paul capital campaign in addition to his annual $5,000 donation.
Fact four: Bagby says he was unaware that Farrell had made the commitment, and Farrell says he was unaware that Bagby was employed by the charity.
Question: Is this front page news? Someone at the Richmond Times-Dispatch decided it was, for it ran on the front page of the newspaper this morning. While the article never explicitly suggests that there was a quid pro quo involving Farrell, Dominion, Bagby and the Peter Paul Development Center, the T-D‘s decision to post a detailed article on the front page of the newspaper implicitly raises the possibility — otherwise why headline the front-page story, “Dominion, its CEO donated to Henrico delegate’s charity”?
Remarkably, the newspaper offers no evidence that a deal was cut, and it doesn’t even quote anyone willing to suggest that something improper might have occurred. Indeed, deep in the story, writer Patrick Wilson provides a perfectly innocent explanation. Farrell has been donating to the charity for several years, former Dominion executive Mary Doswell serves on the board, Dominion has a practice of donating to charities where employees serve as board members, and the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation has donated between $500 and $5,000 a year since 2014.
The article comes at a time when Dominion is under fire for spreading around campaign contributions to members of the General Assembly and exercising considerable behind-the-scenes influence in fashioning legislation. Dominion is, in fact, the largest corporate contributor to Virginia political campaigns, donating almost $8 million since 2005 (not including personal contributions by Dominion executives). And it does, in fact, field a large team of lobbyists — nine directly employed by the company and ten retained from law firms this year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation also plays a large role in the community, awarding about $20 million to charitable causes in Virginia and other states each year. The unstated implication of the T-D article is that Dominion might use charity to exercise back-door influence with legislators. If the implication is true, that’s a legitimate news story and the practice is fair game for public scrutiny. If it isn’t true, the story casts unjust suspicion upon Dominion and its CEO.
In fairness to T-D writer Wilson, his reporting did include facts that undermine any suggestion that anything sleazy occurred.
The article does not state when Bagby commenced employment with the charity, and the information in Bagby’s biography does not include that information. However, we know that he was elected in July 2015 to succeed former Del. Joe Morrissey. Before then, he was just an ordinary guy working in a managerial capacity for a small, nonprofit company.
Farrell, one of the Richmond area’s more prominent philanthropists, has personally given $5,000 donations to the charity since as far back as 2012, the T-D reports, so it is clear that his interest in the cause pre-dates Bagby’s elevation to political prominence. The Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation began its donations in 2014, also before Bagby’s election. Doswell, the Dominion executive, joined the board in July 2015. That happened to be the same month that Bagby won a special election to replace Morrissey, a coincidence that might delight conspiracy theorists. But I would suggest, subject to confirmation, that Doswell’s name was placed in nomination and discussed before Bagby’s electoral victory, and that her decision to join the board was entirely unrelated to the event.
Farrell did agree in June 2016 to up his commitment to Peter Paul through a two-year, $100,000 donation, after Bagby had been elected. But that donation took place long before Dominion had any thought of needing to end the rate freeze and re-write Virginia’s regulatory statutes.
Bagby says that he was unaware of the donations from Farrell and Dominion. Says the T-D: “He said his job is focused on how the money is spent, not who gives it.” His account is confirmed by the Peter Paul “leadership team” web page, which indicates that Danielle Ripperton is the charity’s director of development.
We can infer from a statement by Dominion spokesman Ryan Frazier that Bagby did not attend the July 2016 meeting in which Farrell agreed to donate the $100,000. That meeting included Executive Director Damon Jiggetts, “a second Peter Paul staff member” (probably Ripperton), and board member Justin Moore III, a lawyer and son of a former Dominion chairman.
Every piece of evidence indicates that Farrell and Dominion’s generosity to Peter Paul was entirely altruistic. Any insinuation otherwise, on the basis of the evidence presented, is insulting to Farrell, Bagby, and Dominion.
There are many issues where it is legitimate to raise questions about Dominion’s policies and practices — coal ash, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, nuclear power, solar power, the rate freeze, Dominion’s influence in the legislature, just to name a few. We need a vibrant press to, in the immortal words of Henry Howell, keep the big boys honest. But a $100,000 donation to an East End charity is not one of those issues.
Update: It may be worth nothing that Dominion has contributed $4,000 to Bagby, making it his third largest contributor behind the Virginia Association of Realtors and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.There are currently no comments highlighted.