The president of the conservative Civitas Institute sued Attorney General Roy Cooper on Tuesday claiming Cooper has improperly diverted money in a pollution fund from schools to environmental projects.
Francis X. De Luca claims in the lawsuit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, that the fund conflicts with state law that requires civil penalties and forfeitures to be used for local public schools. However, the funds involved are not from fines, penalties or forfeitures, which would trigger the requirement they be spent on schools, according to the attorney general’s office. Instead, they are a voluntary payment.
Under the terms of an agreement, Smithfield Foods and its subsidiaries pay into a $65 million fund, which are dispersed annually in amounts up to $2 million depending on the number of hogs produced.
The lawsuit seeks to recover that money awarded over the past three years, which is within the statute of limitations. The most recent award was announced in August, when $2 million went to help pay for 10 environmental projects.
Then-Attorney General Mike Easley approved the agreement in 2000. N.C. State University received $15 million to develop new ways of hog waste disposal, and the rest was being paid out over 25 years for environmental projects.
So far more than $27 million has been granted to over 100 recipients. Some of the money has been used to close more than 200 animal waste lagoons, and to restore and protect more than 23,000 acres of natural areas and wildlife habitat.
This year’s grants in the Triangle paid for removing a failing earthen dam and restoring vegetation in the Neuse river basin, and for farmers using data developed by NCSU to evaluate best practices for managing storm water on agricultural fields.
“It’s interesting that Civitas would attack a program that has been used to close waste lagoons in eastern North Carolina when North Carolina is facing serious flooding from Hurricane Matthew that’s contaminated with waste, and people are still cleaning up from that,” said Cassie Gavin, director of government relations with the state chapter of the Sierra Club.
De Luca’s lawsuit, filed by state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex on behalf of the Civitas Center for Law and Freedom, asks a judge to order Cooper to stop collecting that money and recover the $5.7 million spent over the past three years.
“By handing over funds to special interests, funds which he is legally required to allocate to public education in our state, Roy Cooper has not just short-changed our education system, he has directly violated the North Carolina Constitution,” De Luca said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Cooper’s spokewoman, Noelle Talley, said the attorney general’s office doesn’t actually collect or distribute the money.
“This claim gets the law wrong and the settlement wrong. Almost two decades ago this company voluntarily agreed to directly fund water research and water quality projects. In fact, the money goes directly to researchers not the Attorney General's office.
“Since 2001, Attorney General Cooper has transferred $74.1 million in fines, penalties and forfeitures to schools, and last year recommended more than $19 million he won in a settlement to save the Teaching Fellows program, which the legislature failed to do.”