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Energy commission stacked with Trump appointees is shielding a big political donor

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Sarah Okeson
Sarah Okeson

A federal commission stacked with Trump appointees said the organization that runs our nation’s largest wholesale electricity market may keep secret how it spends millions of Americans’ utility-bill dollars on lobbying and political contributions.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ostensibly independent, slapped down a complaint by a watchdog group known as Public Citizen. The watchdog wanted PJM Interconnection to disclose spending.

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“We will not require PJM to itemize and disclose all political-related spending and deny the complaint on this issue,” commissioners wrote.

PJM gave at least $456,500 to the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association from October 2007 to August 2017, according to Public Citizen’s complaint.

Such donations, said Public Citizen, are “the wild, wild West of campaign finance” because they aren’t limited by state or federal rules and can be used to funnel large amounts of money to candidates for office.

The Trump-dominated commission dubbed the money “membership fees” that let PJM maintain “access to these organizations to keep informed on policy initiatives impacting the wholesale markets and to help educate state policymakers.”

Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen said FERC has signaled with this decision that it thinks the commission has no jurisdiction over many internal actions of organizations like PJM that are formed with the commission’s approval to monitor our nation’s electrical system.

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FERC has legally signaled the organizations are Frankensteins, monsters they created but no longer control, Slocum said.

PJM is funded by payments tens of millions of Americans make through monthly utility bills in the District of Columbia and 13 states where PJM operates, including Illinois, Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio. People who pay electricity bills have no control over how PJM or other utilities that make pay-to-play contributions are spending the money.

“If this was a county official or the mayor of a town, there would be outrage,” Slocum said.

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The case was decided by Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a Republican, and commissioners Richard Glick, a Democrat, and Bernard McNamee, a Republican. All three are Trump appointees. The commission has two vacancies. Trump recently nominated James Danly, another Republican, who is the general counsel for the commission.

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