Op-Ed: Leniency for McDonnell would send wrong signal

This op-ed was originally posted by the Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday, January 4, 2015.

by Scott Peterson

McDonnellIs this the time for leniency? Former Gov. Bob McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge James Spencer on Jan. 6. But with Virginia ranked 47th out of 50 states on the State Integrity Investigation’s Corruption Risk Score Card, the answer is “no.” To be blunt, McDonnell should serve time in prison.

Why? A signal needs to be sent that we’ve turned a corner and corruption will no longer be tolerated in the commonwealth. What better place to start than with McDonnell, convicted last September of 11 counts of corruption for accepting $120,000 in sweetheart loans, lavish vacations and golf outings from a Richmond businessman?

It’s not just that he is the first Virginia governor to be convicted of a crime. Let’s face it. The “Virginia Way” is in peril. For years, the Virginia Way referred to the commonwealth’s efficient and well-managed government. Virginia was different from other states like Louisiana, Illinois or Rhode Island.

But those states all convicted and sentenced corrupt former governors Edwin Edwards, George Ryan and Edward DiPrete to prison. Because of that and other reforms, they now all rank ahead of Virginia on the Corruption Risk Score Card.

The U.S. probation office recommends a minimum of 10 years and a month in prison. McDonnell’s lawyers are pleading for community service. It is hard to believe they are serious.

For anyone who cares about Virginia’s reputation for having a clean business environment, this signals a dangerous lack of accountability. This is an issue that is bigger than just one man.

Although former Gov. McDonnell tried to blame his actions on his wife, the members of the jury did not buy that line of defense. They rightly concluded that the governor’s wife didn’t make him use Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams’s plane to travel to a political event, listen to the CEO pitch his tobacco-based Anatabloc supplement product on the way back, then recommend it to Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources. He chose to do that. Those facts are getting lost in coverage of character letters and calls for leniency.

McDonnell rejected a deal offered by prosecutors to plead guilty to a single count of lying to a bank in exchange for a reduced sentence of up to three years in prison or probation. But he arrogantly refused the prosecutor’s demand that he sign a statement acknowledging his guilt.

Whose advice should the judge follow when he hands down former governor’s sentence?

How about the former governor himself? In 2011, McDonnell issued a public statement on the sentencing of former Del. Phil Hamilton, who had been convicted of corruption.

“Virginia has long been a state marked by honest, transparent and ethical governing by both parties. Today’s judgment is a reminder that no one is above the law. So too was the jury’s verdict after this trial, and so too should be this court’s sentence.”

Former Del. Hamilton is now serving a 9 1/2-year sentence in prison.

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.

Op-Ed: Corruption put “The Virginia Way” on life support

This op-ed originally appeared in the Virginian-Pilot and PilotOnline.com.

By Scott Peterson

© December 21, 2014

pilotpalone_400x400For years, Virginians had confidence that their state government was run efficiently and well – at least compared to other states. “The Virginia Way” set us apart from other states with seemingly incorrigible corruption in their capitols.

All that has changed recently with a series of events that is deeply shaking public confidence.

It is not just the dramatic corruption conviction of once-popular former Gov. Bob McDonnell, but a series of ugly disclosures that have changed how we think business is done in Richmond.

There was the CONSOL Energy scandal in which an assistant attorney general provided legal advice to help an out-of-state energy company to fight Virginia landowners who were owed millions for gas extraction. There was the federal probe into offers of jobs to then-Sen. Phil Puckett and his daughter if the senator resigned his seat – thus changing partisan control of the Senate.

The State Integrity Investigation ranked Virginia 47th out of 50 states on its Corruption Risk Report Card.

This month’s scandal is news that the Virginia Tobacco Commission gave $30 million to a partner of Dominion Resources Inc., to construct a natural gas pipeline to a new $1.3 billion natural gas-fired power plant Dominion is building in Brunswick County. The commission’s staff recommended $6.5 million. Dominion is listed as a beneficiary on the Tobacco Commission grant application and is co-signer of the contract.

How was the grant increased by $23.5 million to benefit Dominion – one of the richest and most politically well-connected corporations in Richmond?

According to a draft report by the state Inspector General’s office obtained by The Associated Press, Tobacco Commission staffers said there was pressure from McDonnell’s office to boost the award. But McDonnell’s lawyers said he did not lobby the Tobacco Commission. Dominion said it didn’t, either. Hmmm.

The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission was established in 1998 when Virginia received its portion of a settlement with 46 states and the four largest tobacco companies. Forty percent went to the General Fund and 10 percent to reduce tobacco use and obesity. The rest of the money was put into a $1 billion endowment fund run by the Tobacco Commission to generate cash for community revitalization grants in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

The Tobacco Commission’s chair is Terry Kilgore, a powerful Republican delegate from Virginia’s far southwestern corner. With $122,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion, Kilgore received more money from Dominion than any member of the House of Delegates. Terry’s twin brother, Jerry Kilgore, a former Virginia attorney general and GOP nominee for governor, is a partner with Dominion’s Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods.

So far this year, Dominion is the largest donor to state-level politicians, operating three different accounts, with over $1.3 million in contributions. Dominion has donated more than $9 million over the years to Virginia Democrats and Republicans.

The Virginia Way was fundamentally a public trust that our elected officials would not behave like those in other states. Though that trust has been severely injured, we cannot give up trying to restore it. We can and should demand that steps be taken to make this situation right.

Dominion and its pipeline partner, Transco, a subsidiary of the Houston, Texas-based The Williams Companies, must give back the money. They don’t need what is essentially a welfare check to continue eroding public confidence.

The General Assembly should pass a law that restricts members from accepting any political contributions from organizations and corporations with legislation pending before the legislature. The $100 cap on gifts that Republicans and Democrats are proposing is not enough.

Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw – no stranger to money from Dominion – said last year, “You can’t legislate ethics… either you’re dishonest or you’re not, OK?” Saslaw is wrong that Virginia doesn’t need strong ethics laws, but in one sense he was right. Either Virginia is going to decide to be an honest place to govern, live and do business, or it’s not. It’s time for all of us to decide if The Virginia Way can be saved.

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that holds government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public.

Columbus Dispatch: Group says Kasich evading records request

This article was published in the Columbus Dispatch.

By: Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch – August 13, 2014 11:34 AM

Comments: 0 8 86 130
A group dedicated to shining “a light on the fossil fuel lobby’s influence and propaganda” is warring with the administration of Ohio Gov. John Kasich over his office’s response to its public records request.

In a blog post, the Checks and Balances Project accuses the administration of evading its request for records concerning Senate Bill 310, which weakened Ohio’s renewable energy standards. The law was crafted by majority Republican lawmakers and signed by Kasich.

Simply put, the Kasich administration said in its response letter to the group, no records exist concerning the Check and Balance Project’s areas of inquiry and it failed to sufficiently identify records it sought concerning meetings between the governor’s staff and electrical (coal-burning) utility representatives.

The group was particularly interested in meetings between Kasich staff and conservative stalwarts such as the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity.

There were no meetings involving the Kochs or the conservative organizations, said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. Yes, the governor’s staff met with utility representatives — as did Democratic legislators — but those gatherings did not generate any records, he said.

“We’ve never heard of this organization,” Nichols said. “It should put in a public records request with every Democrat who voted against (Senate Bill) 310 to prove they didn’t meet with Al Gore, the Earth Liberation Front and with (green-energy advocate and Eagles’ drummer) Don Henley.”

Industry front group pivots to “If you can’t be right, be loud” strategy

It appears that Colorado oil and gas lobbyists are back to playing their old games of lies and misinformation.

Monday, the industry-sponsored, blatantly anti-science group Energy in Depth (EID) put out new propaganda in an attempt to distract from the truth of how damaging oil and gas operations are to western air quality. In an interesting twist, EID’s Simon Lomax chose to attack Denver Post environmental reporter Bruce Finley as a means of casting doubt on the studies and data Finley references in his stories. Lomox spent a great deal of time and a lot of column inches cherrypicking to try and refute the negative effects of oil and gas drilling pollution on air quality. Our favorite line here at C&BP is when Lomax blames trees for smog.

“…and, not for nothing, those percentages don’t even include the biggest source of smog-forming emissions, which is the “biogenic” category – meaning trees and other vegetation.”
— Simon Lomax, “What Bruce Finley Failed to Mention About Air Quality,” Jan. 29, 2013

EID is a front group that was launched in 2009 by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) – a.k.a the natural gas lobby. It has a team that works in various energy producing states where citizens are rightly concerned about the impacts of oil and gas to clean air, clean water, and property values.

coga_eid_tweet
It was disappointing to see that Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) CEO Tisha Schuller decided to insert her group into the theatrics. It was just over a month ago that Schuller began her “charm offensive,” announcing that she would tour Colorado in an attempt to depolarize the debate around drilling and fracking near communities. One way for her to do that would be to publicly distance herself and her organization from disinformation producers like EID. Instead, COGA retweeted EID’s claims.

Speaking of claims, here are a few other facts regarding fracking and air quality that EID would much rather the public wasn’t aware of.

  • According to the EPA, “Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas…oil and natural gas production and processing accounts for nearly 40% of all U.S. methane emissions, making the industry the nation’s single largest methane source.”
  • According to the EPA, “Some of the largest air emissions in the natural gas industry occur as natural gas wells that have been fractured are being prepared for production.”
  • CU’s Colorado School of Public Health determined that residents living within one half mile of natural gas wells are at greater risk for potential health problems.
  • The EPA has found emissions from drilling, including fracking, and leaks from transmission pipes, totaled 225 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents during 2011, second only to power plants.

Front groups like EID detract from the real conversation around fracking and drilling in the west. Unfortunately, it seems as if industry is turning to them out of fear, as more western communities move to install common sense protections for their residents. If people like COGA’s Tisha Schuller really want to have a depolarized conversation, they need to publicly distance themselves from groups like EID.

Instead, Schuller is doing what every other mouthpiece for Big Oil does, spreading lies and misinformation so that the oil and gas companies she represents can continue to pollute.

Media shines a light on Colorado BLM leasing plans

News stories last week show that BLM Colorado State Director Helen Hankins is up to her old tricks. According to stories in E&E News’ Energywire, the Durango Herald, and the Denver Business Journal, Dir. Hankins is following her consistent pattern of offering to auction off controversial land for oil and gas, even after major public outcry. This time, Dir. Hankins’ plans to offer more than 10,000 acres near Mesa Verde National Park – worsening air pollution problems the park is already experiencing from existing nearby drilling operations and coal-fired power plants.

It’s worth noting that bringing these oil and gas proposals back puts Dir. Hankins in direct conflict with the balanced approach to public land use that Interior Sec. Sally Jewell spent her weekend endorsing to Western governors.

You may remember that in early 2013, Dir. Hankins deferred the Mesa Verde parcels after the National Park Service, landowners, and community groups protested the threat posed to the park from drilling pollution. Her reversal demonstrates why Sec. Jewell should rein in the Colorado BLM office and ensure that Dir. Hankins is using innovative 2010 oil and gas leasing reforms such as “Master Leasing Plans” which allow a more balanced approach to energy development and look at on-the-ground impacts, including threats to air quality and tourism and recreation. Instead, Dir. Hankins continues ignore the balanced approach Westerners want and plays her part as the oil and gas industry’s real estate agent.

In the Durango Herald, Emery Cowan reported that the La Plata County Commissioners sent a letter to Dir. Hankins asking her to implement the Obama administration’s oil and gas leasing reforms.

County asks for delay in gas and oil lease

“However, by making the decision to lease (the La Plata County parcels in November), the BLM appears to be shutting the door on a (master plan) and a smart approach to protect the treasures that are so important to our local community and economy,” the letter said.

Scott Streater, writing for E&E News, noted that former park rangers weighed in on the original lease sale with concerns of how oil and gas leasing would affect one of the nation’s most iconic parks, Mesa Verde National Park.

BLM to put deferred parcels near Colo. national park back on the block

Among those that protested against leasing the parcels was the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which wrote a letter in February to Salazar complaining that development of the eight parcels “could further impair the already degraded air quality at Mesa Verde, harm important scenic values within the surrounding landscape and negatively affect the local economy, which depends greatly on the national park’s protected status.”

Writing in the Denver Business Journal, Cathy Proctor noted that Mesa Verde attracts more than half a million visitors annually.

Denver Business Journal: Feds to re-offer oil and gas leases near Mesa Verde National Park

The federal Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with a controversial plan to offer about 12,000 acres of mineral rights in southwest Colorado for oil and gas drilling at its November auction — including parcels near the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park.

As public outcry continues to grow, we’ll be watching to see if Dir. Hankins is allowed to continue making the Administration’s reforms into a broken promise for Western communities.

New survey proves Westerners want conservation on equal ground with drilling

Today, the Center for American Progress (CAP) announced new public opinion research that illustrates the stark gap between Washington’s public equal ground logoland use priorities – heavily weighted toward pro-development policies – and what Westerners believe is an appropriate balance between oil and gas drilling and protecting treasured landscapes for future generations.

This new research clearly shows a bipartisan majority of Western voters are more interested in preserving land for recreation and the enjoyment of future generations than in using it for oil and gas drilling. From CAP’s press release:

“When it comes to public lands, oil and gas drilling is not popular (30%); instead, Western voters across party lines are most concerned with preserving access to recreation opportunities (63%) and permanently protecting wilderness, parks, and open spaces for future generations (65%).”

As CAP points out, this research confirms a severe lack of citizen accountability from our government.

  • On one hand, we have the Obama administration, which has leased more than 6.3 million acres of public land to oil and gas companies for drilling –  more than two and a half times as much as it has permanently protected for future generations;
  • And on the other, a Congress that was the first since World War II to not protect a single new acre of public land as wilderness, national park, monument, or wildlife refuge – despite the opposing sentiments of their own constituents.

Read the full report.

The launch of the “Equal Ground” campaign also makes good sense in that it will push Congress and the Obama Administration to align their priorities for how we use public lands with the obvious expectations of communities across the West that rely on national parks, wildlife refuges and other open spaces to attract high-paying businesses, entrepreneurs and visitors to come to enjoy world-class recreation resources just as much as they rely on energy development – done responsibly, in appropriate places.

One way the Obama administration could start achieving the balance Westerners expect from federal policymakers is to implement its own 2010 leasing reform directives, meant to drive our local economies with a real balance between protecting public lands to support and attract high-wage businesses in the West, and using them to produce energy. These reforms give federal officials crucial tools to look at the landscape before the leasing phase, and plan out the right places to drill and the right areas to leave alone because they bring major economic benefits to the community.

But in Colorado, federal bureaucrats have failed to implement these new directives – turning the President’s balanced reforms into a broken promise for Western communities.

As John Podesta rightfully said today:

“This is a case where Washington’s policies and rhetoric are still locked in a drilling-first mindset, but Westerners want the protection of public lands to be put on equal ground. Voters do not see conservation and development of public lands as an either-or choice; instead, they want to see expanded protections for public lands—including new parks, wilderness, and monuments—as part of a responsible and comprehensive energy strategy.”

The Equal Ground campaign is supported by a variety of individuals and organizations, including The Center for American Progress, Conservation Lands Foundation, The Wilderness Society, and The Center for Western Priorities.

For House Republicans, the season of oil and gas giveaways has begun

As reported by Politico’s Andrew Restuccia, Tuesday, House Republicans will spend the summer trying to breathe new life into tired ideas filled with industry giveaways. It’s no wonder given these politicians receive huge contributions from the oil and gas industry. Ironically, these “conservatives” want more mandates and quotas for oil companies while also cutting common sense protections for our air and water.

What Congress should focus its energy on – and what people in the West support – is balance between conservation and energy development. Instead of handouts to oil companies, our leaders in Washington should promote a diverse and thriving economy that supports main street businesses, farming and ranching, tourism, and outdoor recreation.

GOP House leadership has already said it will move the same failed giveaways it tried to push through last year, and the year before that. The problem they’re already running into is that they’ve already tried – and failed – to dupe Americans into thinking these handouts are anything else. Even a Republican energy adviser quoted in Restuccia’s story said, “It’s probably going to look a lot like it’s looked in the last four or five years.”

Westerners want more out of their elected officials than repeated political plays and messaging bills for the oil and gas industry. They want a real balance between protecting the public lands that support and attract high-wage businesses and using them to produce American-made energy.

Here’s a quick preview of the rhetoric we can expect to hear from House Republicans this summer, and the facts they will ignore:

The economy

numbers_graphicShot: Failure to open more federal lands to drilling will hurt job creation and economic growth in Western communities.

Chaser: Western states have grown out of the boom and bust cycle that comes with relying solely on energy development. Protecting as much public land as we lease will further build out the outdoor recreation industry, which already accounts for $64 billion in annual spending, 6 million jobs and nearly $80 billion in local, state and federal taxes.

Price at the pump

Shot: These bills are an important step toward bringing down gasoline prices.

Chaser: In 2012, an Associated Press study showed that oil production has no effect on gas prices. Meanwhile, a Goldman Sachs analysis found that Wall Street speculation was adding more than $23 to the price of crude, or as much as $0.56 per gallon at the pump.

Drilling on private lands

Shot: Increased pressure to develop on private lands is just one result of the slowdown of public lands energy development by this administration .

Chaser: The latest oil boom in the lower 48 states is due largely to an unconventional resource known as “shale oil,” (oil trapped within shale rock). The vast majority of both “shale oil” and “shale gas” (natural gas trapped within shale rock) is found under private, not public, lands. The location of these resources – not safeguards to protect air quality and water supplies – explain the shift in drilling from public to private lands.
shale_locationAdam Sieminski, U.S. House, Subcommittee on Energy and Power Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2 August 2012

Permitting delays

Shot: Regulatory hurdles, long delays, and policies that keep federal lands under lock-and-key have become all too common.

Chaser: Industry is responsible for the majority of permitting delays. Last year, BLM announced it is moving to an online permitting system that will hopefully help companies cut down the time it takes them to properly file permit applications.
permit_timingBLM Table of Average Application for Permit to Drill (APD) Approval Timeframes: FY2005 – FY2012

Permits

Shot: The Obama administration is playing fast and loose with drilling permit pledges.

Chaser: Industry does not use the drilling permits that have already been issued for oil and gas development. In fact, there are nearly 7,000 unused drilling permits that industry could develop on federal public lands.
unused_permitsBLM Approve Permits – Not Drilled table

Idle lands

Shot: President Obama and his Administration have actively blocked, hindered and delayed American energy production.

Chaser: According to the Department of Interior’s Oil and Gas Lease Utilization, Onshore and Offshore report, issued May 2012, “As of March 31, 2012, approximately 56 percent (20.8 million acres) of total onshore acres under lease on public lands in the Lower 48 States were conducting neither production nor exploration activities.
leased_productionDOI Oil and Gas Lease Utilization Report

The facts are not on House Republicans’ side, and neither is public opinion. A recent poll shows 9 out of 10 Westerners agree that national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of the economy. Seventy-four percent believe they help attract high quality employers and good jobs to western states.

It’s time we put conserving our treasured public lands back on equal ground with leasing them for oil and gas drilling. If oil- and gas-funded politicians continue to try and resurrect these industry giveaways, they’re just showing where their priorities lie – with the companies that fund them rather than the people they represent.

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