In the wake of Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill into the Dan River, Gov. Pat McCrory’s office announced that the governor has sold his stock in the utility where he worked for nearly 30 years. The value of the stock was not announced. A spokesman for the governor said the sale “eliminates the often repeated, ridiculous and false, partisan left-wing attacks challenging the intent of our decisions and policies.”
But while the governor has divested himself of his Duke Energy stock, a question remains about how much Duke Energy still has invested in him.
A recent report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group, looked at six governors who received direct contributions from the Duke Energy’s PAC and its top executives from 2000 through 2012. McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor who ran for governor unsuccessfully in 2008 and won the office in 2012, received a total of $96,000, three times the amount of the five other governors combined. When contributions from all Duke Energy employees and employees of Progress Energy, the Raleigh-based utility that recently merged with Duke, are added, the total of utility-related donations to McCrory grows to over $300,000 since 2008, according to an analysis by the voting rights group, Democracy North Carolina.
But there may be a lot more. That’s because shortly after McCrory’s election his associates set up an organization to promote the governor’s agenda. Originally named the Foundation for North Carolina, it has since changed its name to the Renew North Carolina Foundation. Formed under the IRS code section 501(c)(4), it can accept unlimited donations from donors who do not have to be disclosed. The group’s website says its mission is “to promote business-friendly changes in key policy areas—taxation, education, transportation and energy exploration—in order to improve North Carolina’s economy and promote job growth.”
By law, Renew North Carolina cannot directly coordinate its activities with the governor, but those who give generously no doubt have the governor’s appreciation. They also have his ear. Last June, the foundation held an event that drew more than 100 corporate representatives, special interests and wealthy donors to the Grandover Resort outside Greensboro. A tickets to the dinner with McCrory cost $500 and a pass for the entire retreat cost $5,000. A year-long membership in the foundation goes for between $25,000 and $50,000, depending on the perks.
Whether Renew North Carolina does anything to renew North Carolina is unknown, but it has tried to renew the governor. With McCrory sagging in the polls less than a year into his tenure, the foundation spent $800,000 on TV ads to boost his image. The ads that aired last September and October featured McCrory as a populist scourge of the establishment saying, “We’re stepping on the toes of the left and the right to make tough, necessary changes.” The claim was contradictory since it was being promoted by major political players and corporations who gave to a political fund separated from the governor by a fig leaf of IRS tax code.
Now McCrory’s allies may be regretting this lucrative foray into the realm of unlimited donations by undisclosed donors. Thomas Walker, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, is investigating ties between state environmental regulators and the McCrory administration. The investigation comes after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources appeared to head off a lawsuit from environmental groups over leaks from Duke Energy’s coal ash storage basins. DENR agreed to a settlement, since withdrawn, that would have imposed a modest $99,000 fine and spared the utility extensive clean-up costs.
Presumably, Walker and the federal grand jury hearing from witnesses from DENR and the utility will get to see how much hidden money, if any, Duke Energy pumped into the fund supporting the governor.
Bob Singer, a Greensboro lawyer and president of Renew North Carolina, did not respond to requests for comment.
Duke Energy isn’t saying if it has donated to Renew North Carolina, but a sizable portion of its stockholders wants it to disclose all that it spends for political purposes. At the utility’s stockholders meeting earlier this month in Charlotte, one institutional investor, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, proposed that Duke Energy disclose all its contributions. The company’s board opposed the resolution. It failed, but narrowly.
Laura Shaffer Campos, director of shareholder activities for the Nathan Cummings Foundation, said shareholders need to know where a company’s money is going. She said, “You really need to be aware of who you’re supporting and what could be the implications for your company’s reputation.”
In the interest of transparency, Duke Energy should disclose what, if anything, it has given to Renew North Carolina. And the governor should ask his friends not to accept secret donations from the utility that is, or should be, subject to unbiased regulation by the state government he leads.
Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or email@example.com