Raleigh, N.C. — The state's environmental regulatory agency is cutting ties with nine lawyers and support staffers housed within the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper, accusing him of politicizing legal cases.
The Department of Environmental Quality has for several years maintained contracts with the Department of Justice for legal staff who specialize in a range of regulatory work, from enforcement to permitting. Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper, said DEQ alerted her office that it will no longer pay for the positions.
"These employees have worked hard on behalf of the state's environment, and it's disturbing and surprising that this has happened," Talley said in an email.
The contracts will expire at the end of the month.
DEQ spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco attributed the move Friday to an agency effort to move attorneys out from under Cooper, a Democrat.
"North Carolina’s environment is too important to place in the hands of an Attorney General’s Office that has a record of making political decisions about which cases it wants to defend," Hawco said in an email. "The state environmental department has steadily moved its legal work in-house rather than rely on a justice department that has proven it will not zealously represent the interests of the environment we are responsible for protecting."
She said the agency is encouraging members of the legal staff to apply for positions within DEQ.
Cooper, who is running for governor against Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, has been vocal against a number of policies implemented by McCrory and the GOP majority in the state legislature. Just last week, Cooper said he would not defend the constitutionality of House Bill 2, a controversial measure opponents say limits protections for the gay, lesbian and transgender community.
State lawmakers and the Governor's Office have pointed to statements like these as justification for spending more than $8 million on private lawyers since 2011 to defend their policies in court, over the objections of Cooper's office.
Hawco has not yet responded to questions Friday afternoon about specific environmental cases where Cooper has interfered with the work of legal staffers under contract with DEQ.
Robin Smith, who worked as assistant secretary for environment until her departure in 2012 from what was then the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the practice of using contract attorneys from DOJ dates back 15 years or more. In the absence of funding from the state legislature for additional legal positions, she said it was a common practice for dealing with a growing workload at the agency.
"It's hard to figure out at this point who's going to do that work," Smith said.
The North Carolina Sierra Club expressed skepticism at the move Friday evening, pointing out that the primary role of the DOJ lawyers contracted by DEQ was to enforce environmental law, namely through penalties for polluters.
"A range of protections, potentially including coal ash, could be left without a lawyer to make enforcement actions stick," N.C. Sierra Club State Director Molly Diggins said in an email. "It takes a leap of faith to think that the Department of Environmental Quality, given their track record, will step into this void."