N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore says he had no idea that a member of his legislative staff had contacted state inspectors about environmental issues at a property Moore was trying to sell.
Moore’s denial came as he provided a letter showing that a state ethics investigation triggered by different allegations about the property is now closed.
The News & Observer reported on Tuesday that in 2016, Mitch Gillespie, who was then a member of Moore’s staff at the legislature, had made an inquiry to the state’s environmental department about a closed chicken processing plant in Siler City owned by one of Moore’s companies.
After Gillespie’s inquiry, environmental officials approved Moore’s company, Southeast Land Holdings, to receive more than $20,000 from a state environmental trust fund.
Officials also later approved the chicken plant for the state Brownfields program that shields property buyers from much of the liability they might otherwise take on after buying a polluted site. Mountaire Farms requested the Brownfields designation shortly before purchasing the plant from Southeast. Mountaire paid more than six times what Southeast had paid for the plant three years earlier.
“I can’t tell you about whether a call was made or not,” Moore said Wednesday, when asked about Gillespie’s contacts with the Department of Environmental Quality regarding Moore’s private business. “I didn’t know anything about it until I read the article.”
The News & Observer made multiple attempts in the days leading up to the story’s publication to contact both Moore and GIllespie. Neither responded.
But on Wednesday, Moore was at the General Assembly where new and returning legislators were being sworn in and electing new leadership. Shortly after his colleagues re-elected him as House Speaker, Moore gave a news conference in which he was asked about the issues surrounding Gillespie and the chicken plant.
In addition to denying any knowledge of Gillespie’s actions, Moore also said that the state recently cleared him of wrongdoing alleged in early 2018 as part of an ethics investigation regarding the Siler City chicken plant.
On Dec. 28, according to a letter Moore provided members of the press on Wednesday, the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement dismissed ethics accusations levied against him by the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Campaign for Accountability.
“The matter is closed,” Moore said. “The state board of ethics has dismissed the complaint and found that I didn’t do anything wrong.”
However, that complaint, filed in March, did not raise any of the issues involving Gillespie, the trust fund cleanup money or the Brownfields program. Gillespie’s involvement did not become known until late November when DEQ produced more email communications about the cleanup.
Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the state ethics board, said he couldn’t comment on whether investigators knew about Gillespie’s involvement with DEQ when they dismissed that complaint. He cited a state law that prohibits the board from talking about complaint investigations.
The initial complaint dealt with Moore’s conversations with DEQ and whether he had improperly used his influence as one of the state’s most powerful politicians to receive a fee waiver and several deadline extensions, after his company missed deadlines to register and then clean up the tanks. The board dismissed the complaint, after ethics investigators found that DEQ didn’t treat Moore’s company differently from other companies in a similar situation.
Emails showed a DEQ staffer specifically told Moore he could request another extension to avoid being fined, but would be “unlikely” to receive it — but then Moore requested one and it was quickly granted. The ethics investigation cleared that up, finding that Moore’s company had achieved at least “partial compliance” with what DEQ had ordered, and did so in a “relatively prompt” fashion. But Moore had failed to notify DEQ of the company’s cleanup work, ethics investigators found, which they said was what led to “much of the confusion surrounding this matter.”
The N&O reported Tuesday that the state ethics board in May had also previously dismissed another part of the complaint. That part alleged that Moore improperly benefited when a state board, some of whose members he personally appointed, voted to give taxpayer-funded incentives to Mountaire, the company that bought his chicken plant. The letter dismissing that complaint did not go into detail about why it was dismissed.
Daniel Stevens, the executive director of the Campaign For Accountability, said the group still plans to file a new complaint referencing Gillespie’s involvement.
“We’re going to file it, no question,” he said in an interview Wednesday after Moore’s comments.