By Suzanne Herel and Rich Heidorn Jr.
In May, the D.C. Council unanimously approved $250,000 for the Office of the People’s Counsel to conduct a study on the feasibility of the district replacing Potomac Electric Power Co. with a city-owned utility.
The vote set lobbyists for Pepco — no strangers to the Wilson Building, D.C.’s city hall — into high alert.
Public records show that in June alone, Pepco and Exelon lobbyists Tina Ang and John Ray, of law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, communicated more than 60 times with seven D.C. councilmembers or their aides, including in-person meetings, phone calls and electronic messages.
By the end of the month, the study — included in the city’s fiscal year 2016 budget — was dead, with the council voting 7-6 to reallocate the funds for a study on “emerging alternatives” for energy and energy efficiency.
“Presumably, they didn’t even want a study,” said Councilwoman Mary Cheh, an opponent of Exelon’s bid to acquire Pepco who had pushed for the original study.
The amendment to reallocate the funds was sponsored by Councilmember Anita Bonds. Bonds or her staff communicated on 19 occasions with the utility lobbyists in June. Councilmembers Jack Evans, Brandon Todd, LaRuby May and Vincent Orange — all of whom met personally with the lobbyists — and Yvette Alexander, who sent a staff member to the meetings, also voted for the change.
The vote was but one signal of Pepco’s clout in the district.
Orange, a former regional vice president for PHI, chairs the Council’s Committee Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has been criticized for voting on Pepco matters because he holds enough stock to be required to financially disclose it.
Attorney General Karl Racine, who helped negotiate the Oct. 6 settlement between Exelon and Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Racine deputy Natalie Ludaway conducted work on Pepco’s behalf while at their former law firms. Beverly Perry, senior adviser to Bowser, retired in 2013 as senior vice president and special adviser to the chairman of PHI.
In their bid to win approval of the merger, Pepco officials also have looked to cash in chits with the dozens of community organizations the company supports with charitable contributions. In the district alone, Pepco spends about $1.6 million annually on charitable contributions.
Exelon and Pepco claim that more than 80 D.C.-area organizations support the merger, including 30 businesses and associations and nearly four dozen non-profit organizations. At least half of the non-profit groups listed in support were recipients of contributions from Pepco in 2014 or receive funding from the United Way of the National Capital Area, where Pepco CEO Joseph Rigby is the immediate past chairman. John Huffman, CEO of Pepco Energy Services, serves on the board of the Capital Area Food Bank, one of the charitable groups backing the deal.
Business Community Lines up in Support
Rigby also serves on the senior council of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, as well as the boards of the Federal City Council and the Economic Club of Washington — all of which have endorsed the merger.
James C. Dinegar, president of the Board of Trade, told The Washington Post that rejection of the deal would hurt the region’s economy. “There’s a big concern that we’re hanging out the ‘Closed for Business’ sign in the District of Columbia,” he said.