Photo by nevermindtheend (Flickr)
In 2015, local D.C. politics was in a tug-of-war over whether the city’s utility Pepco should remain local or be bought out by energy behemoth Exelon. As community members opposed the merger more and more loudly, Exelon countered with a list of businesses and organizations that supported the merger. The DC Police Foundation was one of the “community leaders” on the list.
The Foundation collects funds for D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department outside its government budget, including from corporations like Target, Verizon and Walmart. Why would the Foundation — which claims no special expertise in the highly technical area of electricity regulation — publicly back a utility merger?
The answer might be related to its relationship with Pepco. As early as 2013, a Pepco executive sat on the Foundation’s board of directors. Pepco donated to the Foundation in 2015 and continued the contributions after its open support for the merger. Since becoming Pepco’s parent company, Exelon funded police foundations in D.C. as well as other cities where it has subsidiaries.
Pepco makes no attempt to conceal the political goals behind its donations. It openly threatened to withhold charitable contributions to D.C. nonprofits if the Exelon takeover was rejected. Nor is it rare for the DC Police Foundation to carry water for its corporate sponsors. Last year, when SunTrust Bank was trying to negotiate a deal to merge with BB&T Bank, the Foundation wrote a letter in support to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
Pepco’s latest aim is to quietly pass a price increase that will harm the poor and do nothing to support the District’s ambitious renewable energy goals. As community members hope to make their voice heard against Pepco’s latest action against consumers, will the DC Police Foundation step in?
Don’t be surprised if it does: Pepco donated to the Foundation as recently as last year, and their cozy relationship shows no sign of ending despite widespread protests against police brutality. Today, Pepco’s Chief Operating Officer J. Tyler Anthony sits on the Foundation’s board of directors alongside familiar faces like Mark Tuohey, the attorney who oversaw the Pepco-Exelon merger negotiations when he served as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s chief legal advisor.
Pepco has something in common with the D.C. police department: They both claim to provide a service that doesn’t actually serve D.C. residents, especially poor, Black Washingtonians being pushed further to the edges of the city as gentrification intensifies.
The Metropolitan Police Department claims to enforce security. But the uprising for Black lives has again revealed policing to be irredeemably racist as an institution, and more and more people across the U.S. are calling to defund the police and invest in things that actually make Black communities safe, like jobs, schools, public health and other needed services.
Pepco transmits energy to the D.C. area. But it is an investor-owned utility, responsible to financiers who expect a payout every quarter in exchange for their investment in the company. The bills owed each month reflect those payouts, instead of circulating the cost of energy back into improving the system and providing energy to the community.
When people are unable to pay due to extenuating circumstances, they risk having an essential service shut off. According to the Public Service Commission, Pepco cannot disconnect service as long as a public health emergency is declared in D.C. But come early October, when the emergency is set to expire, Pepco can return to withholding electricity from those who can’t afford it. There are food banks and walk-in clinics (which themselves are insufficient) — but there is no basic safety net for access to electricity.
It’s also worth noting how the DC Police Foundation acts as a link in a chain that makes up Pepco’s broader effort to cultivate power and influence in D.C. politics. For example, a host of powerful corporations — such as Geico, SunTrust, Verizon and PNC — that work with Pepco to prop the DC Police Foundation also sit on other powerful boards together, such as the Economic Club of Washington, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the DC Chamber of Commerce. These interlocks show the ways that Pepco utilizes corporate philanthropy and corporate-civic alliances to burnish its image and protect its interests, without shifting its business model.
Pepco and the D.C. police purport to provide essential services to the city: safety and energy. But both fail when it counts. Across the United States, people have been calling for defunding the police and for community control of public safety. With millions struggling to pay rent and utilities because of the economic crisis, we should demand community control of energy as well.
Transparency would be a good place to start. As ratepayers, residents have a right to know how much money Pepco and Exelon have donated to the police. Our energy fees should be used to fund community needs like good jobs and clean energy — not Pepco’s political agenda and the police.
Kaela Bamberger and Jake Hess are members of We Power DC, a local group whose mission is to win community control of DC’s energy utility. Learn more at https://wepowerdc.org/