Politics & Government

Accusing GOP of ‘political showmanship,’ Cooper’s office seeks public records on pipeline probe

The months-long legal spat over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took an unexpected turn Wednesday when Cooper’s office requested public records from the legislators in a bid to expose the political machinations behind their planned investigation of him, just hours before the legislators hired a private eye firm to start investigating Cooper.

Cooper sent his public records request Wednesday, coinciding with a legislative subcommittee public hearing to interview a trio of veteran investigators and hire their firm, Eagle Intel Services, at a rate of $100 an hour. Cooper’s letter also said that he would respond by Dec. 20 to the roughly two dozen questions the lawmakers have been awaiting responses to since February.

The GOP lawmakers want to get to the bottom of a $57.8 million mitigation fund the Atlantic Coast Pipeline agreed to create at the same time the $6 billion project received a key state permit last January from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The fund had specifically designated Cooper, or someone he delegated, as being in charge of the money.

Cooper’s office has consistently denied that the funding was a condition of issuing the pipeline permit. His staff has said the mitigation funding was intended to be spent on economic development and environmental protections in areas disrupted by the pipeline construction.

“Your conduct in this matter has not been one of serious oversight but of political showmanship,” Cooper’s chief of staff, Kristi Jones, wrote to the subcommittee co-chairs Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, and Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican, on Wednesday. “It leads me to believe that you are not looking for answers but rather intend to use these hearings and proposed hiring of an outside investigator to try to score political points.”

Just weeks after the fund became public, the legislature passed a law to take the fund away from Cooper and transferred the $57.8 million for spending on schools near the planned route of the pipeline in eight North Carolina counties. The lawmakers kept the issue alive by creating a special subcommittee to investigate how the fund was created. On Wednesday, that subcommittee hired three private investigators to begin interviewing the gubernatorial staffers and agency employees involved in issuing the state permit and in negotiating the terms of the mitigation fund.

Cooper’s public records request echoes the questions that lawmakers are asking him. He is seeking all communications pertaining to the creation of the special subcommittee, to the subsequent transfer of the $57.8 million, and to any discussion of potential political benefits from conducting the investigation.

During their introduction at Wednesday’s hearing, the investigators said they are unbiased professionals, not political lackeys.

“We don’t have a dog in this fight,” investigator Thomas Beers told the lawmakers. “We’re not political people. We don’t hold office. We’ve never run for office.”

Beers has more than 29 years experience as an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. A fellow investigator, S. Kevin Greene, recently retired from the IRS after 29 years. And investigator Frank Brostrom had spent 27 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation before retiring in in 2017. The three have experience investigating public corruption, financial fraud, money laundering and organized crime, among other criminal activity.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is being jointly developed by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Energy to import natural gas from fracking fields in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The project has begun tree clearing, grading and other preparatory work, but construction was indefinitely halted this month by a federal court order suspending a federal permit.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones calling for an investigation. Several environmental organizations that oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have expressed alarm over the mitigation fund, saying the amount of money involved and the timing of the permit pose an ethical conflict of interest for the Governor.

“If Governor Cooper had responded to records requests made pursuant to North Carolina law, we might not be where we are today,” said Therese Vick, a regional director with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said by email after the hearing. “Impacted communities and landowners deserve to know the truth about the permitting process for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and how decisions were made. If it takes an investigation, well, that’s what it takes.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat from Durham, is a member of the special subcommittee, formally called the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. McKissick said after the hearing that job interviews conducted with prospective investigative firms suggest the Atlantic Coast Pipeline investigation could cost between $25,000 and $100,000.

He was concerned that the subcommittee didn’t set a budget for the investigation, but left the spending open-ended. He also dismissed the investigation as politically motivated to embarrass Cooper in advance of the 2020 elections.

But the GOP lawmakers blamed the imbroglio on Cooper.

“If the Governor came forward with the information we had asked for this past year, this would cost us nothing,” Brown said during the hearing. “The Governor is driving this train. He has made this choice for us.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

John Murawski covers health care and environmental issues and has won numerous awards from the N.C. Press Association for his news coverage as well as his book reviews. He has previously worked as a journalist in South Florida, the Philadelphia area and Washington, D.C. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University and Indiana University, and has taken classes at Veracruz University (in Mexico) and the Jagiellonian University (in Poland). He can be reached at jmurawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932.