In September 2018, a series of gas explosions ripped through Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, killing a teenager, injuring 23 people and causing a fire that leveled 80 homes and businesses. NiSource, the utility giant that owned the faulty gas line, ultimately agreed to sell its subsidiary and exit the Bay State entirely.
That didn’t stop the company from doing business with one of the state’s most senior representatives in Congress.
On July 10, 2019 ― just one day after NiSource settled with the family of Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old who died in the disaster ― the company joined others in the gas industry to host a $2,000-per-plate fundraiser for Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) at a ritzy steakhouse in Washington, D.C., according to an invitation HuffPost obtained.
Neal, the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, is facing a heated primary challenge from Alex Morse, the progressive mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who swore off corporate donations and is backed by groups advocating the Green New Deal.
By contrast, Neal, 71, is one of the top recipients of corporate donations in Congress, a reality he defended during a debate earlier this month, insisting the cash he raised benefited nonwhite candidates. Neal has faced scrutiny for drawing vast sums from drugmakers, private equity firms and Fortune 500 companies so adept at skirting taxes they pay effectively negative rates.
Less attention has been paid to the 15-term congressman’s fundraising from the energy sector. This cycle has been substantial. Utilities’ political action committees contributed $120,250 so far to Neal’s campaign, according to data collated by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, making him the industry’s No. 3 recipient during this election cycle. Neal also received $2.1 million from the oil, gas and mining sector, including a $5,000 donation from Exxon Mobil Corp. and the pipeline builder Williams Companies.
Neal remains the only member of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation that hasn’t endorsed the Green New Deal, a movement for a rapid transition off fossil fuels.
NiSource said its “employee-directed NiSource PAC regularly contributes to Members of Congress and candidates in the areas in which we have operations.”
The fundraiser at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse was hosted by Todd Lavin, the head lobbyist at Boston-based energy giant Eversource Energy and PACs associated with an array of utility and electric companies including Avangrid, Exelon, National Grid, NextEra, NiSource, Xcel Energy and the trade group Edison Electric Institute.
Plain and simple, what you see is corruption. Evan Weber, Sunrise Movement
“If you follow the money, you’ll see that Richie Neal has been one of the biggest obstacles to clean energy and climate action in the Democratic caucus and in Congress as a whole,” said Evan Weber, the political director of Sunrise Movement, the grassroots group behind the Green New Deal. “Plain and simple, what you see is corruption.”
A Neal campaign spokesperson pointed to two city anti-corruption ordinances Morse vetoed as mayor as evidence of the challenger’s “hypocrisy” and said the congressman opposed President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accords and to open wilderness in the Arctic to oil drilling.
“Richie Neal has made it clear time and time again that campaign contributors buy into his agenda, not the other way around,” the campaign said.
The Green New Deal has played a central role in the state’s most contentious Democratic contests ahead of the Sept. 1 primary vote. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who co-authored the resolution outlining the Green New Deal in Congress last year with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), is facing a serious challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), who backed the resolution but failed to win support from the climate movement’s biggest proponents.
Neal’s primary took a dramatic turn this month after College Democrats in Amherst accused Morse of sexual impropriety. The allegations were vague, and quickly unraveled as reports indicated a student operative seeking a job in Neal’s office made the claims. But Neal remained slightly ahead of Morse in recent polling.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to make clear the fundraiser took place in 2019.