Legislature putting investigator onto Cooper Administration over Atlantic Coast Pipeline
Governor's office blasts "kooky whodunit capers that just make them look silly," but some bipartisan support for questions.Posted — Updated
The decision came at the end of the second legislative committee meeting in a row on the controversy during which Republican lawmakers essentially asked rhetorical questions from a lectern. No one from the administration was there to answer.
The Governor's Office said Republicans "staged another bizarre kangaroo court to score political points." Cooper has repeatedly denied the pay-to-play accusations, which Republican leaders present not as fact, but as open questions that the administration won't answer to their satisfaction.
"We have been more than patient," Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said Wednesday. "The governor has stonewalled us for almost nine months now."
Pipeline permit, fund announced on same day
The timing raised concern: Had the administration held back on the permit while negotiating the fund?
Cooper later said he had not planned to decide himself how grants were given out, but that he envisioned an appointed board of experts deciding how to support job creation along the pipeline path. This wasn't written into the memorandum or written down anywhere the administration could point to. The administration also said it wanted to work outside the treasury because it did not trust the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Brown asked during Wednesday's meeting if anyone wanted to speak for the administration, and no one answered.
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement Wednesday that the legislature "should focus on bipartisan hurricane recovery and funding public schools and less on kooky whodunit capers that just make them look silly."
Lawmakers haven't questioned Duke officials
GOP subcommittee leaders acknowledged that they haven't reached out to Duke or other pipeline partners to ask whether they feel extorted, which is what their questions suggest. Brown said the investigator will do so.
Spokespeople for Duke and Dominion sidestepped the question when WRAL News put it to them via email Wednesday. Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee simply laid out the pipeline approval process in response.
"As part of receiving federal approval for the project, we worked with all three states (West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina) to develop mitigation measures for these impacts," she wrote. "In North Carolina, a memorandum of understanding was developed as part of this mitigation process. The state of North Carolina determines how to administer those mitigation funds."
Those funds haven't been paid out. Half was supposed to be paid when final construction approval came from the federal government. That has been granted, but it was later stayed by a federal court as part of an ongoing lawsuit. The other half was to be due when the pipeline goes into service.
Why would the state need a denial letter at that point, Newton asked. Was it a threat, he asked.
Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for the pipeline developers, told WRAL News Wednesday that the first time anyone from the ACP, Dominion or Duke saw the draft denial letter was when a reporter sent it to him two weeks ago, long after the permit and mitigation fund were decided.
DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger told WRAL News when asked about the letter in February that it's "common practice for staff to prepare both an approval letter and a denial letter" for projects like this one – those that include a public hearing and where the permitting decision is made by the division director.
"The hearing officer’s report may make a recommendation, but the director makes the final decision after reviewing all the supporting documentation that is provided with the report," Munger said in an email at the time. "Therefore, both approval and denial letters are drafted in preparation for the director’s decision."
Cost of investigator unknown
The subcommittee may eventually subpoena administration officials, Brown and other leadership said. For now, the subcommittee chairs, Brown and Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, are empowered to pick an investigator. Brown volunteered to include one of the subcommittee's Democrats, Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, in that process.
Chuck Stuber, a former FBI agent who ran for state auditor two years ago as a Republican, was in the audience for Wednesday's meeting. He declined comment afterward. Brown said he wasn't familiar with Stuber and that no decision has been made who to hire.
There was bipartisan support Wednesday for getting answers to at least some of the questions Republicans posed, if not for the methods proposed.
"I agree that we do need information," McKissick said during the meeting. "We just don't need to engage in a witch hunt."
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said it would be better to subpoena administration officials instead of spending an unknown amount on an investigation. She asked several questions about cost, and Brown said he'd come back to the subcommittee with that information.
The committee took a voice vote on its decision to hire an investigator, as opposed to a roll-call vote, making it difficult to determine exactly how everyone voted. It appeared all of the Republicans voted yes and that Carney voted no. McKissick said after the meeting that he voted no as well.
A subsequent vote to send the administration an open records request seeking pipeline decision documents appeared to be unanimous.
"This thing just doesn't look or smell very well," Brown said. "And yet we've gotten nowhere from this administration."
Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.