Dem Donor Michael Bills Accused of 'Quid Pro Quo' in Virginia

Megadonor worked to influence leadership elections, two Democratic lawmakers say

Richmond Capitol building
Richmond Capitol building / Wikimedia Commons
November 19, 2019

A Virginia megadonor who spent millions of dollars helping Democrats win control of the state legislature pressured lawmakers to support his preferred candidates for leadership roles, according to a top state Democrat.

Democratic state senator Dick Saslaw, who will assume the role of majority leader next year, said on Monday that hedge fund manager Michael Bills was working behind the scenes to get candidates he financially supported to oppose Eileen Filler-Corn's rise to speaker of Virginia's House of Delegates. Bills and his group, Clean Virginia, oppose Filler-Corn because she took donations from Dominion Energy.

"I had heard that they or their representatives had made phone calls to get people to vote against Eileen," Saslaw said in response to a question from radio host John Fredericks on whether Bills was exerting pressure on candidates he donated to.

"You know, quite frankly, you're getting awful close to that quid pro quo line when you're doing stuff like that," Saslaw said. "I don't take, nor does our caucus, we don't take any contributions that come with any conditions. To me, you're getting into dangerous territory when you accept a deal like that."

Bills and his wife Sonjia Smith spent upwards of $2 million through both direct contributions and Clean Virginia's PAC supporting candidates who pledged not to take contributions from Dominion Energy. He made direct contributions to at least 88 candidates who swore off money from Dominion, and gave $200,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia after it cut ties from Dominion.

Clean Virginia denied the accusation that Bills lobbied against Filler-Corn's leadership bid, and pointed its finger at Dominion for Saslaw's accusation.

"Dominion Energy advertises heavily on the John Fredericks Show, and it is all-too-common to hear blatant lies about our work on the broadcast," Clean Virginia executive director Brennan Gilmore said in a statement. "The allegation that our board chair Michael Bills was calling to lobby against Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn's leadership bid is yet another one of these falsehoods."

Fredericks said he was proud to have Dominion as an advertiser, and denied that it influences his show's programming.

"I'm in the business of selling advertising to reach my growing audience," Fredericks said. "I am proud to have a great company like Dominion Energy advertising with us. We'd love to have Clean Virginia's advertising as well."

Rumors of Bills working to influence leadership decisions in the legislature have circulated among activists in the state for weeks. Filler-Corn was ultimately selected to be speaker, a win Saslaw credits to lawmakers who refused to be bought.

"[The effort] didn't work because the Democrats in the House of Delegates caucus have a lot more common sense," Saslaw said. "We're not for sale."

Virginia Democrat Joe Morrissey, a former member of the House of Delegates who was forced to resign in 2014 due to his sexual relationship with a minor working in his office but was just elected this month to the state senate, told the Washington Free Beacon he has spoken to multiple members of the Democratic caucus who were contacted by Bills to oppose Filler-Corn.

Morrissey declined to name delegates he spoke with, but said he "heard from more than a couple of delegates that there was a call."

"This is coming from an individual who didn't receive any money from Dominion or Michael Bills, so I think that gives me some credibility here," Morrissey said, arguing that Democrats put themselves in a difficult position by accepting money from Bills and Clean Virginia.

"They didn't take any money from Dominion because they thought it had too much influence," Morrissey said. "I see where they're coming from, but it seems counterproductive to take large sums from another entity because, let's be honest, there's always the expectation that payback is due."

"Whenever you get a group spending that much money, there's going to be an ask, an expectation," Morrissey said. "That's not good."

Morrissey served jail time after he pled guilty for the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but was able to win reelection to his house seat in 2015 anyway.

He said Bills's preferred leadership candidate was Democrat Lashrecse Aird, who was endorsed by Clean Virginia. Both Bills and his wife were top donors to her campaign, together contributing $60,000.

Aird did not respond to a request for comment.

Fredericks, the radio host, said he believes more state lawmakers will come forward with stories of demands from Bills.

"I think Dick Saslaw just cracked the dam and opened the floodgates about the quid pro quo, strong arm tactics Clean Virginia has utilized to buy the general assembly," Fredericks said. "It's all going to come out."

Cameron Cawthorne contributed to this report.