A multi-millionaire set out to counter Dominion. Now he’s the state’s biggest campaign donor.

By: - October 21, 2019 12:05 am

Michael Bills, a multi-millionaire investor from Charlottesville, is the largest individual campaign donor in this year’s General Assembly races. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Michael Bills, who helms a $1.5 billion hedge fund based in Charlottesville, said he was thinking like an investor when he decided to personally take on the state’s largest publicly regulated utility, Dominion Energy.

He viewed Dominion and its influence over state lawmakers as bad for the environment and bad for customers. And after looking up how much they were spending on campaign contributions, he decided he couldn’t pass up the potential return that might flow from overtaking the company with an influence campaign of his own.

“I went, wait a minute, they literally are writing the laws for a couple million dollars a year in contributions and some lobbyists,” Bills said. “I can do that.”

And he did. The former Goldman Sachs executive is now the largest individual campaign donor in the state, with contributions totaling $1.7 million so far this year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in politics. The recipients, 88 Democratic candidates and fundraising committees at last report, all have refused to take donations from Dominion — which he has made a condition of his support. The only groups that have spent more over the past two years are major party PACs: the House Democratic Caucus, the Democratic Party of Virginia and the Republican State Leadership Committee, according to VPAP.

His next nearest individual donor: Sonjia Smith, Bills’ wife.

Bills says his only goal is to undercut the company’s sway over the General Assembly, which over the past decade has won legislative victories that reduce regulatory oversight and allow the company to keep and spend excess earnings that in past years it would have been forced to rebate to customers. Last year state regulators calculated the company’s over-earnings at $365.6 million.

“If I can invest in the single millions of dollars to get (that back) — as an investor, that’s really good,” Bills said during an interview in his Charlottesville offices, which overlook the city’s downtown pedestrian mall

While he frames his donations as a benevolent incursion against a corrupt bully (his words), his sharp increase in spending during a pivotal election year in which Democrats are two seats shy from a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly has aroused deep suspicion in some quarters, especially among Republicans.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, blasted Bills and the political action committee he established, Clean Virginia, last week for endorsing his Democratic opponent, Flo Ketner, and donating $5,000 to her campaign. Suetterlein has been an outspoken critic of Dominion since his election and is among a handful of GOP lawmakers in the Senate who frequently oppose legislation backed by the utility.

He accused Bills and his PAC of being more interested in electing Democrats than countering utility influence. “There’s no way they didn’t know about my record,” he said. “I think their only goal is to have a Democratic majority.”

Clean Virginia shot back that while they “are grateful for his leadership on utility policy,” their endorsements and donations are based on candidate questionnaires, which Suetterlein never completed.

A few hours later, the group announced a forthcoming $5,000 donation to Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. It’s Clean Virginia’s first contribution to a Republican candidate, which they say – and Chase confirms – followed her recent completion of their candidate survey. “Just funding because she has a principled stand against taking Dominion and Appalachian Power money and owning stock,” Clean Virginia’s spokeswoman, Cassady Craighill, said in an email. “We are not endorsing her.”

Democrats have generally had fewer qualms about taking Bills’ money, but the party’s leaders in the House and Senate have kept the group at arm’s length and their tactics have occasionally frustrated even allies.

When Bills launched Clean Virginia in 2018, the PAC said it would fund candidates who signed a pledge not to take donations from utilities, raising eyebrows even among some of the group’s supporters, who worried such an arrangement would constitute a textbook quid-pro-quo. Clean Virginia disputed the notion, but quickly backed off the pledge, saying it would instead make decisions based on past votes and candidates’ responses to a questionnaire.

Michael Bills, a multi-millionaire investor, in his office on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

That appears to have eased some concerns. The Democratic Party of Virginia recently voted to stop taking money from Dominion and subsequently reported a $200,000 donation from Bills.

But the party’s House and Senate caucuses continue to steer clear. Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax and a major beneficiary of Dominion’s largess over the years, offered a one-sentence response earlier this year when asked about his position on Bills’ contributions: “We don’t take money that comes with a single condition.”

Bills chafes at the company and others’ contention that his offer of campaign support only to candidates who refuse Dominion money constitutes a quid-pro-quo. “It’s not the same as, ‘Oh, you’re just trading one bad for another,’” he said. “Let’s weigh the bads. One is attempting to do right.”

He says neither he nor the investment fund he leads stands to benefit financially or otherwise from his stance on Dominion. And he describes his policy goals as relatively narrow. Clean Virginia supports a ban on donations from state-regulated utilities and has joined a broad coalition of groups that back a proposal to break up monopoly utilities by allowing competition among energy providers.

A Dominion spokesman declined to comment, but the company criticized Bills in a statement to the Associated Press earlier this year: “On behalf of our nearly 10,000 Virginia employees we engage in the political process. So does this one wealthy individual. The difference is his donations are contingent on doing exactly what he says.”

Bills counters that his proposals shouldn’t be perceived as a threat to the company’s rank-and-file employees. “There would be some senior people that maybe wouldn’t get paid like they are paid today,” he said. “This is not anti-Dominion employee, anti-Dominion worker. It is the executives and leadership.”

Regardless of the debate, the number of candidates who refuse Dominion’s donations has been steadily rising. Clean Virginia said it counted three lawmakers who took a stand against contributions from Dominion in 2017. This year, they say the number is up to 87.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, is one of those three lawmakers who for years has been calling for a ban on campaign contributions from Dominion. He said reining in Dominion is an important goal whose time had come. But he credits Bills for “funding the alternative viewpoint.”

“I think there’s a lot more to it than money,” he said. “But over a million bucks — that’s an enormous amount of spending.”

A multi-millionaire, Bills had long been a major supporter of Virginia Democrats. But with the PAC’s launch, he ramped up his spending dramatically and has easily outspent Dominion, which has so far donated $466,272 to Republicans and Democrats, according to VPAP.

He differentiates between his personal donations and those from Clean Virginia. The PAC’s donations this year have topped out at about $5,000 per individual candidate and are open to anyone running for office who has promised to eschew utility donations.

His personal donations are much larger – as high as $55,000 in some races – and have gone exclusively to Democratic candidates in tightly contested races. Like his PAC, he says he will not donate to candidates who accept money from Dominion.

It’s a stance he’s convinced other major donors to take, as well. Among them, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters and his wife, Smith, who herself has contributed $814,000 to Democratic candidates so far this year.

“The first person I made that pitch to was Sonjia Smith, because she is a large donor,” he said. “She was very receptive.”


Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sonjia Smith’s name.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.