State Sen. Brent Jackson’s produce farm stood to save an estimated $70,000 a year in heating costs if it had received a $925,000 grant to build a natural gas pipeline under a program he sponsored, according to correspondence released this week.
Those savings were listed in an application a Jackson farm representative submitted in January 2015, two years after Jackson launched the Ag/Gas program through legislation approved by the General Assembly. It was the first application the program received.
Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and a chief budget writer for the state Senate, says he sought a grant only to test the program’s effectiveness and had no plans to accept the money if it had been awarded. The program provides subsidies to extend natural gas lines to farms or help them store propane for agricultural uses.
“Because of my diligence in trying to figure out how the program worked, the program is working now the way it was intended to,” Jackson said Tuesday.
Jackson’s application to a program he created has raised conflict-of-interest questions. He said last month that he has asked the legislature’s ethics committee to weigh in.
The roughly 60 pages of correspondence from the state Department of Commerce, which manages the program, show that Jackson’s farm applied for the money shortly after he had raised concerns about how slowly the program was getting off the ground.
“Sen. Jackson is starting to get a lot of questions regarding the natural gas money that was in the 2014 State Budget,” Towers Mingledorff, an agriculture policy adviser for the state Senate, wrote in a Dec. 9, 2014 email. “If I remember correctly, the stated timeframe for the release of the application and guidelines was early October.”
Mingledorff said in the email that the questions came from a lobbyist. Jackson said in an interview Tuesday he couldn’t recall specifically who that was, but said it was likely someone from Piedmont Natural Gas. It and other natural gas providers stand to benefit from the grants.
Jackson Farming Company’s controller, Charlie Siska, applied for the grant on Jan. 16, 2015. The application said the farm was using propane for curing tobacco in 40 barns, operating a fertilizer plant, and heating three “labor camp facilities,” four greenhouses and a sweet potato warehouse.
It cited figures provided by Piedmont Natural Gas to come up with savings of $70,000 per year if a gas line was extended. On Tuesday, Siska referred all questions to Jackson.
Application still alive
The correspondence shows that Mark Poole, a financial analyst in the Commerce Department tasked with running the Ag/Gas program, repeatedly requested additional information to complete the application. But in Poole’s view, there was also a basic problem with the application: It didn’t reflect an expansion of Jackson’s farming operations.
Poole said in an interview that he and other commerce officials viewed that as a requirement under the law that created the Ag/Gas program.
Jackson said that was the wrong interpretation of the law. He pushed additional legislation in the 2016 session, explaining to his Senate colleagues that it clarified that the program was intended for all farming operations.
He did not tell them he had applied for a grant. The legislation passed with little discussion.
Jackson said he thought the grant had been rejected at the time he sponsored the 2016 legislation. Poole said he and other commerce officials were continuing to process it. Poole said he worked with Siska through much of last year to try to get the application in order so that it could be reviewed by Commerce Secretary John Skvarla.
Poole said he had no inkling that Jackson did not intend to accept a grant if it were awarded.
“None,” he said.
A letter to Skvarla
Jackson Farming Company’s application became public on Nov. 29, when Poole gave a presentation on the Ag/Gas program to a legislative committee. He listed Jackson’s application as active.
Jackson was at the meeting. He told The News & Observer last month that he was too embarrassed to talk about the application at the meeting. The correspondence shows that his son, Rodney, wrote a letter to Skvarla, the commerce secretary, three days later.
It doesn’t mention that Sen. Jackson didn’t want the money, or that he was testing the program with the application.
It said the “last meaningful correspondence” the farm had with commerce officials was Aug. 24, 2015, and it was a request for more information. The correspondence released this week, however, shows several email communications between Siska and Poole in April 2016, with Sen. Jackson and Rodney Jackson copied on the emails.
After that, Poole was also in communication with Piedmont about the grant request, but those emails don’t show that Jackson’s company was involved in those conversations.
Sen. Jackson said Tuesday he didn’t recall the emails involving his company and may not have read them. He said he became aware of those communications only recently.
After the N&O story was published, Poole said he contacted Siska to find out if Sen. Jackson was withdrawing the application. Siska told him Sen. Jackson wasn’t.
Jackson said that he will withdraw the application, but only after the legislature’s ethics committee reviews the matter. He said he hasn’t heard back from the committee.