For a politically astute businessman looking to get into the nuclear power industry, a series of contributions to influential legislators could cut some of the inevitable red tape, but a million-dollar gift to Donald Trump’s inauguration might help seal the deal.
As he awaits regulatory approval for a new nuclear power project, Chattanooga, Tennessee, developer Franklin Haney is flexing some serious political muscle by donating $1 million to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration committee in December through a company he owns.
With nearly $107 million in contributions, the committee almost doubled the previous fundraising record, set by Barack Obama’s inaugural committee in 2009. Trump’s inauguration, like many before it, was financed by a host of corporations with business before the federal government.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer rejected suggestions that inaugural donors might receive favorable treatment from the administration.
“I think funding the Inaugural Committee has pretty much been a nonpartisan activity that is going back every administration,” Spicer told reporters on Wednesday.
Haney’s donation came by way of HFNWA LLC, an Arkansas company that he has used to make just one other federal political contribution: a $1 million donation in 2014 to Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC.
Haney personally made two other million-dollar contributions during the previous cycle, to Democratic super PACs Priorities USA Action and Majority PAC. He has given more than $2.3 million to Democratic candidates and party organs, according to Federal Election Commission records.
In light of that record, his contribution to the inauguration stuck out. He did not donate to Trump during the presidential campaign, setting him apart from other major inaugural donors such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Chicago Cubs co-owner Marlene Ricketts.
His ongoing private financial activities could be a clue. Haney chipped in for the inauguration only after embarking on a business venture that would require favorable treatment from Trump administration regulators.
Haney’s company did not respond to multiple messages left with its Washington and Chattanooga offices.
A week after the 2016 election, Haney won the right to buy the defunct Bellefonte nuclear power plant in Hollywood, Alabama, from the Tennessee Valley Authority. He paid $22 million up-front and will put up another $89 million upon closing.
His donation to Trump’s inauguration came about a month later, on December 23.
After winning the rights to buy the plant, Haney announced that he and his partners in the project, operating under a Delaware company called Nuclear Development LLC, plan to invest up to $13 billion to get Bellefonte up and running and selling power once again.
But first the project needs sign-off from the TVA. The federally owned utility is currently seeking public comments on aspects of the sale including its likely environmental impact. Bellefonte will also need to renew permits with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“There will definitely be bureaucracy” at NRC that the company will have to navigate, according to Jessica Lovering, an energy policy expert at the Breakthrough Institute, a nonprofit generally supportive of nuclear energy.
Haney’s company has already received some key support from prominent public figures as he attempts to cut through the red tape that dogs most nuclear power projects. Many of those officials are Republicans, and they happen to be the only Republicans that he has supported financially in recent years.
When Haney’s company purchased the Bellefonte plant, he issued a statement thanking “the entire Alabama and Tennessee congressional delegations—especially Senators Richard Shelby, Jeff Sessions, Lamar Alexander, and Bob Corker, as well as Alabama Governor Robert Bentley—for their continued support of nuclear development throughout this process.”
Since 2012, when Haney incorporated Nuclear Development LLC in Delaware, he has contributed to just three Republican candidates for federal office: Shelby, Alexander, and Corker. He gave them and their leadership PACs $30,000 through the 2016 cycle, and donated another $10,000 to the Tennessee GOP.
One of those contributions, a $5,000 gift to Corker’s leadership PAC on September 20, 2013, came just a week after Corker held a public hearing to nudge TVA towards selling the Bellefonte plant, a move Haney had been pressing for months.
He was also giving heavily to Gov. Bentley. Haney donated about $300,000 to his campaigns through 2016. When TVA solicited public comments on the potential sale of the Bellefonte plant early last year, Bentley lined up to support it, along with Sen. Shelby, another recipient of Haney’s financial largesse.
His donation to the Trump inauguration came as Haney shifted his focus from acquisition to profit. Now that he has a lock on the Bellefonte plant, Haney is looking to expand and exploit federal incentives for nuclear power production.
Two weeks after TVA approved the Bellefonte sale, Nuclear Development LLC hired a pair of high-powered Washington lobbyists: former Clinton White House officials Harold Ickes and Janice Enright. They brought on lobbyists with another firm, Peck Madigan Jones, including the former chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Nuclear Development paid the two firms a combined $60,000 through the end of last year to lobby Congress and the Treasury Department on tax incentives for nuclear energy production. One of those tax credits is worth an estimated $6 billion to the nuclear power industry.
With the administration and congressional Republicans eyeing a push for comprehensive tax reform, Nuclear Development’s lobbyists will have a chance to earn their keep as the nuclear industry tries to preserve its federal tax incentives.
For Haney, being in the president’s good graces can only help. And a seven-figure contribution to a ceremony devoted entirely to exalting the new president was a good place to start.