Political power and financial might: energy lobbyists in the US
US energy firm Exelon has been swept by a raft of controversies, from state investigations to private lawsuits, based around its alleged breaking of lobbying laws and failure to disclose its political connections. We consider the court case, and what this could mean for lobbying efforts in an industry with an entrenched history of industry involvement in politics.
Lobbying is an integral part of the US energy industry. Research group Open Secrets reports that over $124.6m was spent on lobbying efforts in oil and gas alone in 2019, with two-thirds of lobbyists former government employees, establishing a strong connection between the oil industry and the political and economic power of the federal government.
Until recently, the energy industry has largely avoided scrutiny. This has changed in recent months though, with the state of Illinois launching investigations into utility company Exelon, and its subsidiary Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), for failing to disclose the extent of its lobbying projects, and unlawful connections with some of the state’s most powerful political figures.
The scandal has tanked the companies’ value, threatened the enaction of green energy legislation, and highlighted the web of connections between the power industry and the powerful in Illinois, throwing both Exelon’s future, and the power supply of the state, into uncertainty.
Allegations against Exelon
Despite broad legal support for lobbying practices, a number of regulations remain in place in the US, on both a state and federal level, and Exelon and ComEd are alleged to have violated the latter’s laws. The companies share a power base in Illinois, where ComEd is the largest electric utility and Exelon operates six nuclear plants, but have allegedly failed to comply with state law that requires lobbyists to register with the state government.
Illinois legislation notes that “it is a violation of this Act to engage in lobbying or to employ any person for the purpose of lobbying who is not registered with the Office of the Secretary of State”. The clause is part of the state’s efforts to limit the direct influence of private lobbying over political affairs, alongside stipulations that officials in non-elected positions in the state government are prohibited from engaging in lobbying. The Exelon allegations, however, suggest that these restrictions may have completely failed to separate these institutions.
An investigation spearheaded by local radio station Wbez 91.5 Chicago has highlighted the role of Jay Doherty, an influential and well-established ComEd lobbyist who is president of the City Club of Chicago, a popular club that the station called “a regular stop for Illinois’ top politicians”. Doherty claimed to have received $530,000 from ComEd from 2011 to 2018 to promote its interests to those linked to his club, but Wbez reported that the actual figure was closer to $3.1m.
The station also implied the involvement of Martin Sandoval, a Democratic senator. One of Sandoval’s former campaign workers leads Power Washing Pros, a cleaning company based in Illinois, that received more than $277,000 in lobbying funding from ComEd.
The station also suggested the involvement of senator Martin Sandoval, a Democrat whose former campaign worker leads a power-washing company based in Illinois, that received more than $277,000 in lobbying funding from ComEd. While Sandoval himself has not been implicated in the allegations, there appears to be an entrenched relationship between Exelon and the state’s Democratic party that has gone all but unreported.
Furthermore, Exelon’s lobbying efforts have been linked to House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Democrat who has held the top office in the state’s house of representatives for all but two years since 1983. Wbez alleges that of the 23 lobbyists Exelon admitted to paying in 2019, 15 have links to Madigan, eight employ former Madigan employees, and five employ retired state legislators who had worked with the House Speaker, further solidifying the relationship between party and power company.
These relationships are all the more significant considering the future of power in Illinois. The state is currently considering its clean energy future, with a split between companies such as Exelon, which have backed the Clean Energy Progress Act, and business groups such as the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which have supported the Clean Energy Jobs Act. While both bills target 100% reliance on clean power, by 2032 and 2050 respectively, the latter, critically, does not include nuclear power in its definition of clean power, instead aiming for all of the state’s power to come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.