State police are now investigating apparently-fake emails sent to legislators last week that called on them not to undermine a proposed merger between the utilities SCANA and Dominion Energy.
The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said Tuesday it will look into the emails tied to the Consumer Energy Alliance at the request of lawmakers. Members of the House said at least some of the thousands of emails they received from the group appear to be from the email accounts of constituents who deny sending them. The email surge came as the House moved to block Dominion from continuing to use customers’ power bills to pay back debt on a failed nuclear project should its SCANA purchase be approved.
“As I was scrolling through the emails, they were all form letters and one name, in particular, I recognized as my neighbor and friend, so I hit “reply” on the email and when I did, it was not an email that I recognized as his,” said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York.
House leaders maintained the emails were part of a pattern by SCANA and Dominion officials to mislead the public on problems at the ill-fated V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project. The project was ultimately abandoned last year after going years behind schedule and billions over its initial budget.
“These emails appear to be part of a larger effort to mislead the people of this State and fraudulently influence the legislative process,” House Speaker Jay Lucas stated in a request to the Attorney General’s Office. “The use of such false emails and misinformation efforts are in keeping with the troubling pattern of fraud, misrepresentation and concealment that have become the touchstones of the V.C. Summer project.”
“It looks, obviously suspicious,” Simrill said. “Fraudulent, obviously, at best and really, illegal at worst. I thought the Attorney General certainly needed to apprised of is and have the authorities to look into the situation.”
“It is identity theft,” he said. “Because you’re stealing that person’s identity and you’re pushing a cause and it’s not you doing it.”
The Attorney General’s Office forwarded the request to SLED.
Consumer Energy Alliance President David Holt said in a statement that imposters used the website’s form emails to impersonate residents, although he insisted only a handful of emails were impacted.
“This is very serious to us, since comment collection is an important and common practice used by public officials, companies, advocacy groups, and non-profits to seek feedback on issues that are important to the community,” Holt said. “Like us, these groups rely heavily on the honesty of the individual and the information they submit. Any hacking or misrepresenting of that information in the process represents a compromise to the system and should be a concern to all.”
Simrill said what raised his suspicion was that legislators who lived in districts not served by SCE&G and not affected by the proposed merger with Dominion were getting the emails.
“Districts that are heavy SCE&G-driven, that’s who the power supplier is, they got about the same number as the districts like mine and I have zero SCE&G customers. So it was more broad-based, which raises a red flag to me,” he said. “Some districts would be more interested in this issue than others would.”
“As I looked deeper into it, it looks like they picked the names and addresses from voter registration files,” he said. “That’s what it appears to be to me.”
“Unfortunately, it de-legitimizes the email system because now when I get an email, I have to ask myself, ‘is this email legitimate or am I being spoofed?'” said Simrill. “We are more aware that the emails you receive may not be from the person you’re thinking they’re from.”
“The question I have then is how is that information generated to come up with the names that were placed in this portal to allow the email to be sent?” It raises the question of someone stealing the identity of someone for the purpose of advocacy,” he said.
The Public Service Commission will make the final decision on the SCANA-Dominion merger, although the commissioners will likely wait to see how or if legislators change the relevant laws before acting.