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Last week, a D.C. Council committee led by Yvette Alexander voted, after hours of debate, to kill the mayor’s nomination of Betty Noel to the Public Service Commission, which regulates the District’s utilities. Noel, who for 18 years had litigated on the behalf of consumers as the People’s Counsel, had been targeted by Pepco and other business organizations that feared she wouldn’t be good for their interests—-in particular Pepco’s pending request for a $42.5 million rate increase—-if she landed a seat on the three-member board.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, voting with Ward 1’s Jim Graham in favor of Noel’s nomination, called out the utility for trying to tank it. “What’s really behind this is Pepco. Pepco wants another puppet on the commission,” Cheh said. “Betty Noel is nobody’s puppet, and Pepco knows it.”
The three opposed Councilmembers—-Alexander, Phil Mendelson, and Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser—-fretted that her previous service as People’s Counsel would force her to recuse herself from 60 percent of the board’s cases. Mendelson also questioned Noel’s “judicial temperament” in light of her “combative” hearing testimony.
The temperament argument is unconvincing—-as Cheh pointed out, plenty of litigators are able to adopt a more judgely mien when put on the bench. Reviewing the video from her hearing, it’s clear that while Noel vigorously defended her fitness for the job, it was on the basis of a very strong command of the facts, not simple rudeness. Furthermore, a commission of experts exposed the recusal issue as a red herring back in December, noting in a 9-page report that much of the backlog of cases on which Noel wouldn’t be able to rule are old ones that the PSC wouldn’t be closing anyway.
Is it possible that the councilmembers who voted against Noel were influenced by Pepco’s financial generosity?
Well, maybe. Campaign finance records show that, over the past 10 years, Pepco and its political action committee favored the councilmembers who voted its way both through campaign contributions and donations to their constituent service funds, which can technically only be used to help constituents (but are certainly a form of influence). In total, Bowser got $2,300, Mendelson got $3,000, and Alexander got $1,900. Graham only got $1,800, and Cheh got zilch.
Pepco wasn’t the only one lobbying against Noel. Contributions from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce bring the totals to $3,300 for Alexander, $5,000 for Mendelson, $3,200 for Bowser, $2,300 for Graham, and still nothing for Cheh.
But you know what? That’s actually not a lot of money. The councilmembers could foot those kinds of bills with their $130,000 salaries.
Given this council’s record, it’s always possible that funnier stuff could be going on. I didn’t run the numbers for all of Pepco’s employees, or all the money they donated to other political action committees that could then funnel donations to candidates, or God knows how many money orders peoples’ relatives in other states might have sent in. It’s very, very frustrating that the Office of Campaign Finance doesn’t have a better tool for tracking money in D.C. politics, and no watchdog organization has developed one like the fabulous OpenSecrets.
It’s also true, however, that corporations have many smarter ways of exerting influence than through political contributions, which are at least theoretically public. Walmart, for example, donated nothing to D.C. politicians as it prepared to open multiple stores in the city, instead taking the approach of sprinking its largesse to laudable organizations around the city.
So unfortunately, campaign contributions don’t really answer the question here. And of course, it’s also possible that Bowser, Mendelson, and Alexander truly thought they were making the best decision for their constituents (Bowser, in particular, hasn’t always been Pepco’s biggest pal).