Will the Duke Energy scandal hurt the Democrats in November?
The scandal surrounding Duke Energy in the wake of the abrupt departure of incoming CEO Bill Johnson shows no signs of going away any time soon -- and that could spell trouble for Democrats, who have tied their political fortunes to once-and-again Duke CEO Jim Rogers in advance of the party's upcoming national convention in the utility's home city of Charlotte, N.C.
Rogers was called to testify before the N.C. Utilities Commission this week about the newly merged board's controversial decision to seek Johnson's resignation just minutes after the commission approved the $32 billion merger with Raleigh, N.C.-based Progress Energy on July 2, which it did with the understanding that Johnson would become CEO. Rogers blamed the surprise CEO switch on the board's growing concerns over the former Progress Energy chief's alleged "autocratic" style and his handling of the company's crippled Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida, which has been offline since 2009 and could cost billions of dollars to fix.
Under state law, the utilities commission can revoke or alter its approval of the merger of the North Carolina-based companies, which created the nation's largest utility. State Attorney General Roy Cooper has also launched an investigation. Cooper points out that Duke recently got a rate increase that it said it needed in order to protect its credit yet made an abrupt management change that landed the company on Standard and Poor's credit watch.
The merger controversy is not only affecting Duke, however. The Democratic National Convention is reportedly failing to meet its fundraising goals -- and some insiders say the merger mess is a factor.
A prominent Democrat, Rogers co-chaired the effort to bring the convention to Charlotte, and he co-chairs the Charlotte Host Committee for the event. Duke Energy also guaranteed a $10 million line of credit for the three-day extravaganza, which starts Sept. 4, and Rogers personally contributed $100,000 for the gathering.
The Washington Post reported this week that just over half of the money needed for the convention has been collected. The paper spoke to "several people with close working knowledge of convention planning" who said that Rogers has been too distracted by the merger to devote sufficient time to the convention:
Rogers's convention critics spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal discussions. They said in interviews this week that Rogers's focus on the Duke-Progress deal in recent months had left a void in the top ranks of the Charlotte host committee, the group tasked with raising the event's $36.65 million price tag. That, according to the critics, has added to the burden on other less-well-connected local leaders, including the city's young mayor, Anthony Foxx, to try to make up the difference.
The anonymous sources told the Post that the host committee has raised about $20 million so far. A spokesperson for the committee challenged that number but refused to offer any specifics.
The convention's fundraising efforts further are complicated by the party's prohibition on corporate and lobbyist contributions for the event. Fundraising has also been hurt by the party's decision to hold the event in North Carolina -- a key swing state but also a right-to-work state, which has angered some unions. For example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers gave $1 million in 2008 but is planning to withhold support this year because of the state's anti-labor laws. Unite Here, which pitched in $100,000 for the last convention, has also decided against contributing.
"If the rest is not raised," the Post reports, "Obama’s cash-strapped campaign might be forced to cut a large check to cover the difference." Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has outraised Obama for the past two months.
Under the original terms of the merger, Rogers would have relinquished his position as Duke Energy CEO and moved to the less-demanding role of executive chairman, giving him more time to focus on fundraising for the convention. But with the company facing multiple investigations and the resignations of three top executives, it appears that Rogers' day job will only get more demanding.