Christensen: Duke Energy's money mutes political outrage

robc@newsobserver.comJuly 15, 2012 

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Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers (left) and Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson talk about their merger with McClatchy reporters on Jan. 10 in Raleigh, N.C. 2011 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

TRAVIS LONG — MCT

— Duke Energy seems to have this city politically wired.

How else can you explain why North Carolina’s political leadership has gone mute in the face of the Duke-Progress Energy merger blowup?

Democratic Gov. Bev. Perdue? Nothing. Gubernatorial candidates Pat McCrory and Walter Dalton – next to nothing. Senate leader Phil Berger or House Speaker Thom Tillis? Who, me?

One might think that, at the very least, North Carolina’s political leaders would be standing up and demanding answers. Did the state’s largest power utility hoodwink state regulators when they said Progress Energy’s Bill Johnson would be the new CEO, only to fire him shortly after the merger became official? Are rate payers getting stuck with a $44 million exit bill for Johnson to walk out the door?

“The outrage that you would expect to see has not been there,” said veteran Democratic strategist Brad Crone. “The silence has been deafening.”

There have been a few exceptions. Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has no opposition this fall, has ordered an inquiry, although he has been guarded in his remarks.

The N.C. Utilities Commission – dominated by appointees of Democratic former Gov. Mike Easley, who had close ties to Progress Energy – has been holding hearings.

But there is a reason why elected officials have been mum.

“I think it shows the tentacles of Duke Energy run very deep,” Crone said. “They have a political action committee that has been generous to both sides of the aisle. That makes it very difficult for the political leadership to come out and bang on a utility when they have been so proactive with lobbying and proactive with donations.”

Duke’s political ties

Jim Rogers, Duke Energy’s CEO, is co-chairman of the committee raising money for the Democratic National Convention being held in Charlotte in September.

Last year, Rogers held a major fundraiser in his home for Perdue. When Perdue was trying to raise money for a Democratic Governor’s Association fundraiser in Cary in 2009, Duke Energy coughed up $100,000.

In April, Rogers held a fundraiser in his home for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican.

McCrory, meanwhile, worked for 28 years as mid-level executive for Duke Energy. He is used to calling Rogers boss. McCrory now works for the law firm Moore & Van Allen.

The last major political figure to publicly stand up to Duke Energy was Rufus Edmisten, the Democratic nominee for governor in 1984. As attorney general, he had crusaded for lower electric rates, and as a gubernatorial candidate he even held a news conference in front of Duke’s Charlotte headquarters.

Duke Energy poured money into Republican Jim Martin’s campaign, helping elect Martin and defeat Edmisten. Lesson delivered.

Decades of debate

Duke Power was a controversial entity in Depression-era North Carolina. In the 1932 Senate race, Bob Reynolds of Asheville used Sen. Cameron Morrison’s connections to Duke – he had married a Duke heiress – to unseat him in the Democratic primary.

Reynolds said companies such as Duke Power were gobbling up America’s natural resources, overcharging for service and shifting the tax burden to the shoulders of the little people.

Morrison defended Duke Power.

“The Duke Power Company in my state belongs very largely to humanity,” Morrison said, as recounted in “Buncombe Bob,” a biography of Reynolds by Julian Pleasants. “There is not an organization on this earth, unless it is purely religious, that is doing nobler or better work than the Duke Power Company and the Duke Foundation.”

When informed of Morrison’s description of Duke Power as a charitable organization, Reynolds quipped: “He must be thinking about what it had done for him.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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