Less than two weeks after his administration issued a key permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that he hired a legislative affairs director who once lobbied Congress on the natural gas pipeline.
Lee Lilley, 34, will be paid $128,000 a year in his new role, replacing Brad Adcock, who returned to retirement, according to a statement from Cooper’s office. Adcock had been a lobbyist for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
A former legislative director for Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, Lilley had worked since 2012 for McGuireWoods Consulting, the lobbying arm of the law firm of the same name. One of the clients was Richmond-based Dominion Energy, a partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline along with Charlotte-based Duke Energy.
Some critics of the pipeline said the hiring decision was troubling. Therese Vick, a sustainbility coordinator with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said that omitting the last six years of Lilley’s lobbying profession from the press release amounted to whitewashing his past.
“Beach communities and communities targeted for fracking should be very concerned about Governor Cooper's recent actions regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and particularly concerned about him choosing an oil and gas industry lobbyist for his legislative director, and trying to hide Lee Lilley's ties to that industry,” Vick said.
The planned 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline will carry shale gas through West Virginia and Virginia to North Carolina, where it will cross eight counties along the Interstate 95 corridor, delivering natural gas to Duke power plants as well as for residential heating and cooking. Duke has already begun clearing trees in North Carolina to make way for the pipeline, which will cross more than 300 creeks, marshes and other bodies of water in the state.
Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County said she has known Lilley since he worked for Butterfield in Washington and considers Lilley to be highly qualified, but said the timing of Lilley’s hiring will raise questions for some.
“It never dawned on me that there would be an issue with that,” Harrison said. “But there is a perceived problem with the revolving door nationally and statewide with lobbyists.”
Harrison said she’s against the pipeline but did not consider Cooper’s hiring decision to be inappropriate.
“I think it’s just a coincidence that the permit happened about the same time he was hired,” Harrison said. “It’s just an unfortunate coincidence and bad optics, nothing nefarious.”
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Lilley’s first day was Jan. 31.
“Lee has deep roots in North Carolina and experience in legislative affairs for Congressman GK Butterfield,” Porter said by email, “and he will use that experience to advance Governor Cooper's goals to help North Carolina families.”
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality issued a key water permit for the pipeline Jan. 26, the same day that Cooper’s office announced it had separately negotiated a $57.8 million contribution from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to pay for environmental, renewable and economic development projects. Some environmental activists decried the fund, which Cooper has control over, as a conflict of interest and an ethical lapse.
The fund also sparked the ire of Republicans, who are accusing Cooper of skirting ethical strictures. They say Cooper will dole out the money to environmental organizations that form his political base, and question the legality of a governor dispensing funds on public projects that were not approved by the legislature.
“Cooper’s pipeline slush fund had already raised serious constitutional and legal questions but this latest disclosure raises grave ethical questions about Cooper's personal conduct,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party.
A 2014 lobbying disclosure form shows that Lilley lobbied Butterfield on “Proposed Interstate Natural Gas Pipeline approval/congressional support.” According to 2017 data, Lilley was on a McGuireWoods team that lobbbied for Dominion Resources, the holding company for Dominion Energy.
According to a McGuireWoods bio, Lilley’s specialties are agriculture, trade, environment and energy. Lilley has extensive experience representing Fortune 500 companies, start-ups and trade associations before Congress and executive agencies on those issues, the bio says.