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McCrory's coal ash 'veto' claim during debate doesn't fit timeline

Posted October 18, 2016 10:40 p.m. EDT
Updated October 19, 2016 6:09 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Pat McCrory spoke directly for the first time Tuesday night about a private dinner meeting he held at the Executive Mansion with Duke Energy officials in mid-2015. However, his explanation that he threatened to "veto" a pending bill related to coal ash cleanup doesn't make sense, given when the state's two major coal ash management bills were passed.

His answer came during an hour-long debate Tuesday night. McCrory, a Republican, faced off against Democrat Roy Cooper, the state's attorney general, and Libertarian Lon Cecil in the final forum of the fall gubernatorial campaign.

During a give-and-take on government transparency, moderator David Crabtree asked McCrory about the meeting, which came to light due to a calendar entry obtained through a public records request to the Department of Environmental Quality.

That meeting came amid key legal and regulatory decisions that would impact Duke, including court action over the cleanup of coal ash and the state's posture toward renewable energy. It also came during a months-long internal debate over what to tell well owners near Duke coal ash pits about the safety of their water.

At the time of WRAL News' original report on the meeting, McCrory refused to answer questions directly about the dinner. A spokesman would only say topics of discussion included the "economy, the environment, energy and job creation." A spokeswoman for Duke was similarly circumspect at the time.

"I didn't take notes," McCrory said during Tuesday's debate in answer to a question about the meeting. "I'll tell you what was discussed. I discussed that I was going to veto the bill that they wanted." He then recounted, "I said, 'I’m going to veto this thing. It's totally unacceptable, and I’m going to take it to the Supreme Court.'"

From the context of the debate and answers from a McCrory spokesman, it's clear McCrory was referencing legislation that created a commission to oversee coal ash cleanup in the state. That commission would have taken power away from McCrory and DEQ to oversee cleanup efforts. At the time, lawmakers said they were worried, among other things, about McCrory's ability to oversee Duke's cleanup efforts because he had worked for the company for almost three decades.

In continuing his answer, McCrory told Crabtree that Duke "wanted the coal ash commission. They did not want me to veto the bill."

McCrory's answer, however, doesn't fit the timeline of coal ash legislation.

Lawmakers first created the commission through a bill passed in August 2014. McCrory neither signed nor vetoed that bill, but allowed it to become law without his signature. He sued later that same year to overturn the measure.

A three-judge panel sided with McCrory in March 2015, but lawmakers appealed. The Supreme Court heard that case on June 30, 2015, and ruled again in McCrory's favor in January 2016. The Duke meeting at the Executive Mansion came a month before that Supreme Court hearing and nearly a year before a 2016 law drafted and passed in response to the Supreme Court decision.

It seems unlikely, bordering on impossible, that McCrory would have been talking about a veto more than a year in advance, when the fate of the original bill was yet undecided.

Asked for clarification, McCrory's campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said in an email, "The governor made clear that he would fight Duke in the Supreme Court and the legislature. And he did just that – winning in the Supreme Court with the support of Governors Martin and Hunt and later vetoing an effort Duke Energy wanted passed in the legislature that did not adequately protect the environment or uphold the constitution."

Asked if reference to a veto was a misstatement by McCrory, Diaz insisted, "No. As I said, the governor later vetoed an effort Duke Energy wanted passed in the legislature."

Pressed as to why McCrory was only just now answering questions about the meeting, Diaz said, "The governor is focused on fixing the coal ash issue that Roy Cooper ignored for decades as a state government insider, not playing the media's game."

Cooper's campaign focused on the statement in a news release following the debate Tuesday night.

​“When asked about his private meetings with Duke Energy executives tonight, Governor McCrory gave an answer that couldn’t possibly be true," said Ford Porter, a spokesman for the Cooper campaign. "So the question remains: Why was Governor McCrory meeting with his former employer, and why won’t he be honest with North Carolina families?”