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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam just appointed a top Dominion PR director as his new communications chief – continuing the revolving door between the powerful utility and state governments.

Image: Tim Evanson, Flickr

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced last week that Grant Neely will become his new Communications Chief. Neely has been the Director of Strategic Communications for Dominion Energy since August 2016. 

Dominion is an energy utility that is one of the most powerful corporate forces in Virginia. The appointment reinforces concerns over the revolving door between Dominion and state governments and potential conflicts of interests of government officials regarding Dominion, which is pushing the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 600-mile fracked gas pipeline that would run through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Neely is not new to the revolving door between industry and government. Before going to work for Dominion in 2016, Neely was chief of staff to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. He resigned from the Jones administration to go work for Dominion as the company’s media point person.

Neely will now serve in an administration that has regulatory oversight over his immediate former employer. This comes at a time when Dominion’s power and influence has come under increasing scrutiny.

Grant Neely is not the only person to have walked through the revolving door between Dominion and state government. In early 2018, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper hired Lee Lilley as his Director of Legislative Affairs. Lilley had been a lobbyist for Dominion for years – right up until the time he joined the Cooper administration.

Before becoming a lobbyist, Lilley was a legislative director for North Carolina U.S. House Representative George Butterfield, developing skills and connections that he could later bring to his lobbying work on behalf of private corporate interests. After serving in government from January 2007 to May 2012, Lilley became a lobbyist for McGuireWoods, a powerhouse consulting firm (Richard Cullen, the brother-in-law of Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, is a partner at McGuireWoods).

From 2012 to 2017, Dominion paid $690,000 to McGuireWoods for lobbying services carried out by teams of lobbyists that included Lilley. Some of these lobbying efforts for Dominion that Lilley was part of involved meetings with the U.S. Senate and House on the issue of “Proposed Interstate Natural Gas Pipeline approval” – likely a reference to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

At McGuireWoods, Lilley also lobbied for other fossil fuel and utility clients that included the America’s Natural Gas Alliance, American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and Duke Energy

The revolving door between states governments and Dominion – with persons entering the top ranks of gubernatorial administrations directly from positions where they were paid to lobby for Dominion or held positions directly within the utility – raises questions about Dominion’s influence over and access to these administrations. 

Notably, Virginia and North Carolina have both seen intense debate over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, much of which would run through those two states to transport fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale formation. Dominion is the pipeline’s top (48%) owner, while Duke Energy is the second top (47%) owner. 

Dominion has been a top donor in Virginia politics for years. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion has spent at least $16,694,987 in Virginia politics since 1996. Since October 2015, it has given $216,751 to Ralph Northam throughout his career. Dominion CEO Tom Farrell has also showered Virginia politicians with hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Dominion’s vast influence in Virginia – including tied its interests regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – is illustrated in other ways.

For example, as we reported earlier this year, a host of Virginia state legislators who have proactively supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are personally invested in Dominion – meaning they are potentially set to profit from the pipeline they are supporting from the platform of their elected position. One State Senator, Bill DeSteph, owns more than $250,000 in Dominion stock (you can view a table with all these investments here).

Others have pointed out further evidence of Dominion’s troubling influence on government officials and regulators. 

For example, Kelly Roache at Energy Policy Institute recently wrote about how U.S. Attorney General William Barr and states Attorneys General have supported Dominion as the U.S. Supreme Court is “poised to decide this month whether it will review a ruling key to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s future.” Barr received $2.3 million in cash and stock awards as a Dominion board member from 2009 to 2018 and Dominion has given tens of thousands of dollars to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

Itai Vardi has also reported on conflicts involved in reviews and assessments around the pipeline for DeSmog.