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Watchdog group accuses utilities of using charitable giving to boost profits

Electric utility companies have used billions of dollars in charitable giving to influence politics and boost corporate profits, the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group, said in a Dec. 10 report.

The group said utilities seek to use philanthropy as a tool for influence in several distinct ways: giving money to win public support for regulatory or legislative issues, donating to organizations connected to or favored by policymakers, and supporting nonprofits to suppress potential opposition to utility initiatives.

"Clearly, not all [utility] charitable spending is directly political," the report said. However, much of it "is geared explicitly to influence politics." The report looked in detail at charitable activities by 10 large investor-owned electric and diversified utilities between 2013 and 2017.

The Energy and Policy Institute, which describes itself as "working to expose attacks on renewable energy," said policymakers and regulators should require financial disclosures from entities that submit written and oral comments in proceedings that could impact utility companies and require utilities to file itemized disclosures of all charitable contributions paid from corporate accounts rather than through affiliated nonprofits, which are subject to their own reporting requirements.

A spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for U.S. investor-owned electric utilities, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Dec. 10.

The Associated Press reported in 2015 that electricity customers of Dominion Energy Inc. were billed for donations the company made to "politically connected charities."

"Upon evaluation of these charitable contributions, some have cynically suggested that certain charitable organizations to which we have contributed are motivated not by the civic good but instead by political considerations," Paul Koonce, a former executive at Dominion subsidiary Dominion Energy Virginia, known legally as Virginia Electric and Power Co., said in 2015 testimony filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

"We do not agree with those suggestions that our charitable giving practices are anything other than well-intentioned," said Koonce, who now works as an executive vice president and strategic adviser at Dominion.