RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans on Tuesday asked for a federal investigation into Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s $57.8 million agreement his office reached with utilities poised to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
State Republican Party leaders want an investigation to determine whether or not Cooper broke the law with the memorandum of understanding, calling it possible extortion by the governor for his personal or political benefit.
Republican state Sen. Danny Britt Jr., of Lumberton, backs the call for an investigation, while Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Wagram, calls it “political theater.”
Britt said the claim from the governor is that the fund “was for economic development. This fund was for jobs.”
“Ironically, however, all the governor could talk about for days was environmental mitigation in an effort to appease his base,” Britt said. “Even his agreement with the ACP was called the ‘Mitigation Project Memorandum of Understanding.’”
The governor changed his tune as soon as lawmakers reminded him that state and federal law already require the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s builders to meet environmental mitigation requirements before the project can receive approval, Britt said.
“Yet he repeatedly refused to answer the direct question on why he apparently doesn’t believe investing $58 million in our children’s public education in the eight poor, rural Eastern North Carolina counties impacted by the pipeline will help economic development and job creation in that region,” Britt said.
Robeson County’s school system could receive about $7.7 million from the fund. Britt has said that the legislature would put restrictions on how the money could be spent.
At no point did the governor refer to the other listed potential use of the fund — “developing renewable energy projects,” Britt said.
“Was this just an oversight, or was it a deliberate omission, since the Carolina Journal recently reported on an agreement to build a solar farm on Cooper family property near the future pipeline — a farm that potentially could have benefited from his special fund — that was not disclosed in the governor’s Statement of Economic Interest?” Britt said.
If the permitting process is independent of the agreement, why was the permit granted just hours after the agreement was signed — according to WRAL News, “three months earlier than expected?” Britt said.
“This certainly raises suspicion, and I do not see where a further look would cause any harm,” Britt said.
The call for an investigation is just a ploy by the Republicans to confuse voters during an election year, Pierce said. They want to give voters something to think about other than the GOP’s failed policies.
“But we have smart voters who are not going to be fooled by this ploy,” Pierce said.
The Republicans are trying to find something with which to smear the Democratic Party and the governor, he said. The lawmakers calling for the investigation are just responding to marching orders from GOP leaders.
“I really don’t thing the Republicans have any merit in what they are proposing,” Pierce said. “It’s all just political theater.”
Cooper and his office have said nothing unlawful was done. He and other Democrats have dismissed the new law redirecting the funds as a partisan power grab by Republicans.
The money in the memo would have gone to environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy, but it lacked many details on how the funds would be distributed. Cooper’s office announced the agreement the same day as state regulators approved a key permit, leading critics to suggest the permit was conditional upon the agreement.
“It’s an obvious to pay-to-play situation,” state Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said during a news conference outside a Raleigh federal building before giving a written request for an investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “This is not a message that builds confidence in our citizens and it definitely sends a negative note and message to potential businesses looking at North Carolina.”
Cooper’s office didn’t respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment on the request for the probe, but a state Democratic Party spokesman called it the latest bogus theory over the fund put forth by Republicans heading into a difficult election year.
“Republicans are flailing from one conspiracy to the next because they’re terrified of the wave of Democratic enthusiasm that is going to sweep them out of office,” the spokesman, Robert Howard, said in a release.
There was no new previously undisclosed information in the request or discussed in Tuesday’s news conference by Hayes and GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse. Still, Woodhouse said, “a serious look by federal investigators is warranted.”
Don Connelly, a spokesman for Bobby Higdon, the U.S. attorney for eastern North Carolina, confirmed receipt of the written request but said the policy of Higdon’s office and the U.S. Justice Department is to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation. Woodhouse said the request also was sent to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The GOP has been going after Cooper on the pipeline for several weeks. First, GOP lawmakers unexpectedly grilled Cooper’s new legislative lobbyist over the deal during a committee meeting last month, just before the law redirecting the agreement funds was debated.
Legislative leaders then asked Cooper’s lobbyist for written answers to their questions. The Senate Rules Committee chairman last week asked for another hearing on the matter, which Cooper’s chief of staff called a political stunt. And the conservative-leaning Civitas Institute filed a state ethics complaint against Cooper over the agreement.
The pipeline — to be operated by Dominion Resources, Duke Energy and other utilities— reached a somewhat similar $58 million memorandum with Virginia for forestry, wildlife and other environmental mitigation.