River of political money in Virginia is deep and wide

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com

RICHMOND — Rivers of money flow through Virginia politics.

Individuals and corporations can give unlimited amounts in a system that has long favored disclosure over restrictions. When legislators moved in the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell's corruption indictment to change that philosophy for lobbyist gifts, they made no such shift for campaign donations.

Considering the way federal reforms drove money into third-party groups that can keep their donors secret, that's probably for the best, said former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who co-chairs Gov. Terry McAuliffe's ethics reform commission.

"We felt it was better, more transparent, to know who was giving what to whom," said Bolling, who as a state senator favored limits.

Once the money's in a campaign kitty, politicians can spend it as they wish. Only when they retire does the law prohibit them from using campaign cash for personal expenses.

That, the governor's ethics commission would like to change. It has also suggested a fundraising ban during special legislative sessions. The current moratorium only applies during regular sessions.

Neither idea has found much vocal support in the General Assembly.

People spent tens of millions of dollars on last month's legislative races, and exactly one seat flipped from one party to the other. Not a single incumbent lost.

Where does all that money come from? In many cases that's easy to say. Others require a trip through several rounds of political committee paperwork to uncover the actual donor.

Why do they give? That is harder to ascertain. Of the top 10 individual donors to Virginia political campaigns leading up to this year's General Assembly elections, eight either didn't return Daily Press requests for comment, or they declined to comment.

But clearly, some want good relations with lawmakers. Many, if not most, appointees to high-profile state boards are significant donors. Some donors have business with the state. Many of the companies that give big money are regulated by the state.

Some donors are ideologues. Some just seem to have money and a political focus or are friends with McAuliffe, who built a national fundraising reputation during his time heading the Democratic National Committee.

"If you're friends with Terry, you have to donate money," was how one insider put it.

Bolling raised millions over a 22-year political career and said "never once" did a donor say he or she expected something from the state in return.

"I think the vast majority of donors give simply because they're trying to promote good government as they see it," he said.

Giving typically means better access, though, Bolling said.

The Daily Press drilled down on the state's top donors in a number of categories: Political groups, special interest groups, businesses and individuals.

The totals given come generally from the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks political spending, and cover 2014 and 2015. Some figures come directly from campaign documents.

All this money "has an inordinate amount of influence," according to Alex McMurtrie, a former delegate who has self-funded five runs for the state Senate, including one this year.

"You follow the money you'll follow the trail of what everybody's interested in," McMurtrie said.

Here's a breakdown of who gave what:

Political groups

•$5 million — Common Good

McAuliffe's PAC, which draws its money from just about every industry in the state, is No. 1, according to VPAP. Planned Parenthood and NextGen Climate Action, which is billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's group, both kicked in six figures during a late-October campaign push.

•$4.1 million — Democratic Party of Virginia

The state party's top donors include the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, which in turn get most of their money from Democratic legislators, though the House caucus' biggest donor over the last two years was Virginia First PAC. That's House Minority Leader David Toscano's leadership PAC, which in turn got its money from a wide range of people, companies and lobbying firms.

•$3.7 million — House Democratic Caucus

Democratic House members are asked to kick in to this account, often in the five-figure neighborhood. Along with Virginia First, a joint House-Senate Democratic caucus fund called the Commonwealth Victory Fund is a major donor here. That group's donor list is a long one of corporations and interest groups, both in and out of state.

•$3.4 million — Republican Party of Virginia

Funded primarily by sitting legislators over the past two years. As with other political groups, it often takes several steps to find the original check writer. For example: The RPV's top donor was the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, whose top donor was state Sen. Jill Vogel's campaign, whose top donor was Bill Holtzman, Vogel's father and head of Holtzman Oil Corp.

•$2.8 million — Virginia Senate Republican Caucus

Like its Democratic counterparts, a holding committee for money to help Republicans win Senate seats. Along with individual Senate campaigns, Dominion Power and Altria, the tobacco company, were among the top donors the last two years.

Individuals

•$1 million — Philip Munger, New York

Munger is the Virginia Democratic Party's single largest donor. He's also the son of Charles Munger Sr., of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate. Why does Munger care about Virginia politics? Hard to say. He and McAuliffe apparently go way back, but Munger did not return a Daily Press call seeking further information.

•$565,740 — Alex McMurtrie, Midlothian

A former House delegate, McMurtrie self-funded his run for the Democratic nomination this year in Senate District 10. It was his fifth try for the state Senate, and he placed third in a three-candidate primary. McMurtrie has served on a number of government boards, including the Board of Visitors for Virginia Commonwealth University. He's also an escheator, appointed to dispose of estates with no known heirs. His donations to other candidates over the years approach $100,000, but he said he never felt pressure to give in exchange for appointments. Others, though? "I surmise that they're giving money for appointments," he said.

•$462,040 — Robert W. Bailie, Mechanicsville

Bailie is by far the largest donor at The Middle Resolution, a Tea Party style PAC. The group made some waves in western Virginia this year with a mailer that identified Democratic state Sen. John Edwards as "the conservative" in a three-way race, which was meant to shift Democratic support to an independent candidate and boost the Republican challenger. Edwards won re-election. Attempts to reach Bailie through online listings and through the PAC itself were not successful.

•$402,370 — Edward Hart Rice, Vienna

Rice, a stockbroker, has been a major Democratic donor for years, kicking in more than $2.5 million in Virginia since 1997, according to VPAP. His wife, who has also been a donor over the years, declined to comment for this story. She took a message for her husband, who did not return the call.

•$333,000 — G. Gilmer Minor III, Richmond

The quasi-retired head of a major medical supply business, Minor has given to Republicans and Democrats almost equally over the years, totaling more than $1.35 million. He has a long list of civic involvement and board appointments. He's currently on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the state's coordinating body for higher education. His company, Owens & Minor, does business with the University of Virginia Medical Center. He declined comment through an assistant.

•$237,250 — Barbara J. Fried, Crozet

A real estate developer, Fried has given more than $1 million to Virginia political causes over the years, 90 percent to Democrats. Her late husband was a major Democratic donor as well. She declined to discuss her political giving.

•$204,908 — Ronald D. Abramson, Washington, D.C.

Another major Democratic donor, Abramson is a corporate governance attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a D.C. firm. He's a member of the New York University Board of Trustees, according to his law firm bio, and chairman emeritus of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's board of trustees. The Daily Press left a message for him with an assistant, who said that Abramson "probably won't return the call." He did not.

•$202,958 — John O. "Dubby" Wynne, Virginia Beach

Wynne tends to split his contributions about evenly between Republicans and Democrats. He's the retired CEO of Landmark Communications, now called Landmark Media Enterprises, which owns The Virginian-Pilot. He chairs the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, and he's heavily involved in a new push to change the way economic development is done in Virginia. Called "GO Virginia," the program will push regional cooperation, tying it to state grants expected to be in McAuliffe's new budget. The project has backing from a who's who of political and business leaders. Wynne spoke to the Daily Press, but declined to comment on his political giving.

•$200,000 — Louisa Cohlan, Palm Beach, Fla.

Cohlan is associated with singer Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville companies through her husband, John Cohlan, the CEO of Margaritaville Holdings. The couple is apparently close to the governor, and together donated $260,000 to McAuliffe's Common Good Virginia PAC. They're also looking to do more business in Virginia. The company, with partners, hoped last year to build a Margaritaville restaurant in Virginia Beach on a site owned by the city. City leaders said no. The Cohlans didn't return messages left for them through Margaritaville Holdings.

•$209,157 — William B. Holtzman, Edinburg

Holtzman has given more than $1 million to Virginia politicians over the years, with more than half going to campaigns for his daughter, state Sen. Jill Vogel. Holtzman said he also plans to support Republican Ed Gillespie's coming gubernatorial campaign. "I try to support people that I think are good business people and are honest and who I think would make a difference," Holtzman said. Holtzman Oil Corp. has sold fuel to a number of state agencies over the years, going back to well before Vogel joined the Senate, but state purchasing records show that business tapering off in recent years. Holtzman said some people probably donate for access or recognition, but he does it "because I want our state and our country to be run better than it is."

Companies

•$1.3 million — Dominion Power

The big gorilla of Virginia political giving: Virginia's largest power company has given more than $13.7 million to Virginia political campaigns since 1996, according to VPAP. That's in addition to gifts and entertainment for lawmakers valued upward of $242,000 and an untold amount spent on lobbyists. At the moment Dominion lists six lobbyists in house and another five outside lobbyists retained, according to VPAP. That's in addition to the executives often seen around the General Assembly and company president Thomas Farrell, who gave $54,000 of his own money to politicians this year and negotiated directly with McAuliffe over the regulated monopoly's latest legislative desire — a moratorium on key base rate and profit reviews.

•$661,615 — Altria

The tobacco company is Virginia's No. 2 all-time corporate giver, according to VPAP, at $5.3 million. The company has a team of lobbyists who have worked successfully against cigarette tax increases in recent years. Counties have asked repeatedly for permission to tax sales and some Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to raise the state's tax. The company has also been active as Virginia moves to regulate nicotine vapor products and on trafficking prevention issues.

•$497,247 — Alpha Natural Resources

The coal company's political giving has fallen off a bit in recent years, but protecting the industry remains a priority in Richmond. Republicans fought the governor this year over changes he wanted to the state's coal industry tax credits, and are expected to try again next year to extend credits, something McAuliffe vetoed in 2015. Republicans are also fighting the federal Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration effort to limit utility carbon emissions. Alpha has a lobbyist in Richmond but, like many companies, declines to say what bills it actively lobbies. State law makes that voluntary.

•$439,168 — Comcast

The cable giant has pumped nearly $1.8 million into state campaign coffers over the years, with most of it flowing through the Virginia Cable Telecom Association. The company discloses the bills its lobbyists focus on, and listed 16 of them this year. Few of them got much press, which is not unusual for the bulk of utility bills.

•$413,300 — Appalachian Power Co.

Appalachian serves the western part of the state. Like Dominion, the company will be affected by the state's moratorium on State Corporation Commission base rate reviews, as well as the fight over the clean power plan.

Interest/industry groups

•$2,418,655 — Everytown for Gun Safety

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun-control group ran advertisements in two key state Senate races, working to flip the chamber to Democratic control. The effort fell short by a seat.

•$745,255 Planned Parenthood Action Fund

Planned Parenthood has been a major supporter in Virginia for Democrats, including McAuliffe. The governor, through the state Board of Health, is rolling back abortion clinic regulations enacted under Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Legislative Democrats haven't had the numbers to overturn the state's pre-abortion ultrasound requirement. McAuliffe has promised repeatedly to be "a brick wall" on women's health issues.

•$639,676 — Virginia Bankers Association

One of those groups that is frequently in the background in Richmond, it gets funding from a number of banks, including Hampton Roads-based TowneBank. TowneBank's star-studded boards of directors include a number of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment Jr., state Sens. Mamie Locke and Louise Lucas and Dels. Johnny Joannou and Ron Villanueva.

•$634,580 — Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association

The group's largest donor by far is Premium Distributors of Virginia, which is based in Chantilly. Like a lot of industry groups, the association gives most heavily to incumbents, and particularly incumbents with leadership positions or plum committee assignments.

•$561,414 — Virginia Dental Association

Another trade group that helps maintain relationships by giving to committee chairs and leadership, though high-profile legislative fights over dentistry may be rare. Association lobbyists did not return messages, but the group's lobbying records indicate annual interest in the state budget.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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