The chairman of a political action committee that supported D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (shown) was paid by Exelon to lobby city officials, records show.
Records show the head of a political action committee that supported D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser was paid by Exelon to lobby city officials, raising new questions about the Bowser administration's handling of the proposed high-stakes merger between Pepco and Exelon.
The chairman of FreshPAC, Earl "Chico" Horton III, was hired by the power company on Sept. 30. That same week, the Bowser administration announced it would work with Exelon to reach a "settlement agreement" that would net a better deal for D.C., allowing the merger to move forward. Until then, Bowser had supported D.C. regulators' decision to reject the merger.
The controversial FreshPAC — which was founded by close associates of Bowser — was shut down in November amid concerns it was fostering a "pay-to-play" environment in the D.C. government. The outside group had been raising unlimited funds thanks to a little-known provision in D.C. campaign law. Many of the group's donors were individuals or businesses that had ties to millions of dollars in city contracts. Other donors were appointed to boards and commissions by the Bowser administration.
Council member Mary Cheh, an outspoken critic of the merger, says she's stunned to learn Exelon hired the head of FreshPAC to lobby the District government.
"It feels sleazy and it erodes confidence in sense of good government," says Cheh.
An administrative official with knowledge of the negotiations says lobbyists weren't at the table during talks, but it's impossible to verify because the settlement was negotiated in secret.
Bowser spokesman Michael Czin says he's "not aware" of any meetings Horton had with Bowser or members of her administration. He also defends the administration's handling of the merger and says Bowser "believes that the District's negotiated deal is in the best interest of residents and ratepayers."
"I'll leave it to others to play pundit," says Czin when asked about the criticism of Exelon hiring the PAC's chairman.
A search of D.C. lobbying records shows that Horton — a supporter of Mayor Bowser — and a lawyer at Graves, Horton, Askew & Jenkins LLC, had never been hired as a lobbyist before Exelon brought him onboard.
On his filing with D.C.'s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, Horton writes that he was hired to lobby officials about the "Exelon - Pepco Holdings Incorporated Merger."
Horton did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.
The full details of Horton's lobbying efforts won't be known until January. D.C. only requires lobbyists to file activity reports twice a year. The document filed on Sept. 30 was a registration form.
Exelon declined to say how much it paid Horton for its lobbying efforts but added this statement:
"Like many corporations, Exelon engages consultants to educate policymakers and the public about the company's views and priorities. Naturally, we engaged consultants in the District to help us educate people about the enormous affordability, reliability and sustainability benefits our merger with Pepco will provide District residents and to help us understand their priorities. These activities are funded entirely by shareholder dollars."
While organizers shut down FreshPAC in November and returned money to donors, critics have continued to raise concerns about the connection between the pro-Bowser PAC and the Pepco-Exelon merger. For example, officials at both Pepco and Exelon refuse to answer whether anyone from FreshPAC tried to solicit contributions — a point raised by several environmental activists at a D.C. Council roundtable held by Cheh earlier this week.
Cheh calls the lobbying connection between FreshPAC, Exelon and the Bowser administration "incestuous."
"Ordinary members of the public have little opportunity to really have their interests considered when all of the insiders and the corporate interests are at the table doling out benefits to one another while we stand on the sidelines hoping that a good decision is made," says Cheh.
But lobbying experts say it's hardly uncommon for people to be hired because of their access to lawmakers.
"This happens all the time," says Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America (formerly the New America Foundation) and author of The Business of America is Lobbying. "A lot of lobbyists in Washington are hired because they have relationships with particular offices in Congress, the White House — whatever it is," says Drutman. "They know how to get into see key decision makers and they also know what to say to key decision makers."
In early 2016, D.C.'s Public Service Commission will announce whether it approves the settlement deal and allows the merger to go forward.