Watchdog seeks investigation of donations to GOP from executive who bought chicken plant from NC House speaker
Posted January 16, 2019 3:56 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — A veteran political watchdog wants state investigators to look for any connection between House Speaker Tim Moore's 2016 sale of a chicken processing plant in Siler City and major political donations from the plant's buyer that followed.
Moore's involvement with the chicken plant has been questioned for some time. He and partners bought the former Townsend plant out of bankruptcy for $85,000 in 2013 through a company called Southeast Land Holdings. They sold it to Mountaire Farms in 2016 for $550,000.
In between, Moore worked with the state Department of Environmental Quality on environmental clean-up issues, particularly on fuel tanks buried on the property.
Mitch Gillespie, who served a senior policy adviser to Moore at the time, contacted at least two DEQ staffers about the underground tanks, including one who headed a trust fund that reimburses people for costs associated with removing such tanks.
Several DEQ staffers have told WRAL News that they never felt political pressure from Gillespie or Moore about the issue.
The plant eventually got a $22,000 reimbursement for tank removal costs – less than the $42,000 requested – and was entered into the state's brownfields program, which offers tax incentives and other benefits for developers of properties with environmental issues.
Moore, R-Cleveland, has denied any knowledge of the conversations between Gillespie, a former lawmaker and DEQ assistant secretary, and the regulators.
But Bob Hall, former director of good-government group Democracy North Carolina, said Wednesday the effort to push the property through DEQ made it more valuable to Mountaire and its chief executive, Ronald Cameron.
"There's a smoking-gun email that shows that Tim Moore's staff person got the Department of Environmental Quality to fast-track a reclassification of this property," Hall said. "[Cameron] gets tax breaks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when you reclassify the land [and] put it in the brownfields program."
Following the sale, just before the 2016 election, large campaign checks from Cameron started rolling in:
- $100,000 to the North Carolina Republican Party
- $25,000 to Moore's House Republican caucus
- $500,000 to a political-action committee supporting then-Gov. Pat McCrory
Shortly before McCrory left office, a state agency awarded Mountaire a $1.5 million grant for a wastewater system for the Siler City plant.
Cameron, an Arkansas resident, continued to be a major GOP donor in North Carolina in the 2018 election, records show.
"It is part of this political wheeling-and-dealing, backscratching, coziness, corruption," Hall said. "This is a politician, Speaker Tim Moore, who's influencing government action to benefit himself, his company, his political future and a major political donor. So, he's using his office for personal benefit and to help a really big Republican donor."
He filed a complaint Wednesday with the State Board of Elections and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
Moore called the complaint a partisan attack with no merit.
"It will receive the same full dismissal by state officials as previous efforts by my political opponents to spin a false narrative that advances their own agenda," Moore said in a statement.
An ethics complaint was filed last year over Moore's involvement in the Siler City deal, but it was dismissed by the State Board of Elections last month, shortly before the board was disbanded by a court order in an unrelated lawsuit.
The Campaign for Accountability. a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group that filed the complaint, refiled it Monday to include allegations of Gillespie's influence.
The Siler City plant had closed in 2011, laying off more than 1,000 people. Mountaire reopened it this week.
The company said in a statement Wednesday that it was unaware Moore was involved in the property sale.
"Mountaire purchased five separate parcels of land to build our $170 million processing plant complex in Siler City, NC. Negotiations took place through a Realtor, not directly with the property owners. The company was unaware that the Speaker of the House was involved in one of the properties," the statement said. "Mountaire worked directly with North Carolina’s Brownfields Program on each parcel. Our investment in Siler City is a great example of a successful brownfields redevelopment project that will eventually create about 1,100 jobs in Chatham County and millions of dollars in economic development."