Politics & Government

New ethics complaint filed over House speaker’s chicken plant

A Washington, D.C.,-based government watchdog group asked the state ethics board Monday to look into the role a senior aide to House Speaker Tim Moore played in state environmental approvals for a closed chicken plant Moore co-owned.

The Campaign for Accountability obtained emails in late November that showed Mitch Gillespie, who until recently worked as a senior policy adviser on environmental matters for Moore, had sought a status report from state environmental officials on how they were handling the removal of two underground tanks at the Siler City property. One of those tanks had leaked gasoline, requiring the removal of more than 400 tons of soil.

Gillespie’s inquiry came as Moore and his partners in Southeast Land Holdings were two months away from striking a deal to sell the property to Mountaire Farms, a major chicken processor which is now redeveloping the site. Within hours of Gillespie’s request, state Department of Environmental Quality officials said in emails that Southeast would be eligible for a state fund that helps pay for underground tank cleanup costs.

Southeast ultimately received $22,000 from the fund, a little more than half of the $42,000 cleanup cost. The DEQ also approved Mountaire’s request to move the site into the state Brownfields program, which limits the environmental liability for new owners so long as they abide by a limited cleanup that contains the contamination.

The News & Observer obtained the DEQ correspondence in mid-December and first reported Gillespie’s involvement last week. The correspondence raises ethics questions. The state constitution requires state resources to be used for a public purpose.

Gillespie is a former longtime state lawmaker who spent two years as assistant DEQ secretary under then-Gov. Pat McCrory before joining Moore’s staff in early 2015.

“The new documents reveal that one of Speaker Moore’s legislative aides intervened with DEQ officials regarding Speaker Moore’s property,” Daniel Stevens, the watchdog group’s executive director, wrote in his complaint. “The documents also show that, when removing the (underground tanks), the company may have further polluted the property and failed to follow DEQ procedures in cleaning up the site. Further, the documents raise questions about whether DEQ officials handled Speaker Moore’s property in a neutral manner.”

The watchdog group had first filed an ethics complaint 10 months ago regarding DEQ’s handling of the environmental issues on the property, and also raised questions about state funds offered to help redevelop the site. The ethics board dismissed concerns about the state incentives in May, and then last month said it could find no issues with DEQ’s handling of the cleanup. But neither of the board’s written dismissals show if it was aware of Gillespie’s interactions with DEQ.

Stevens said the ethics board should reopen its investigation.

Moore said in a statement that he did nothing wrong. It did not address Gillespie’s actions.

“This matter was already thoroughly reviewed and dismissed by the state ethics board and I look forward to a second confirmation that department officials followed normal procedures and I did nothing wrong,” he said.

Moore said last week he first learned about Gillespie’s involvement when he read The N&O’s story. He said at the time he couldn’t confirm Gillespie’s interactions with DEQ.

Gillespie could not be reached for the N&O’s report last week. He later told WRAL that it was “fake news,” but did not speak to the emails showing his involvement in his boss’s business.

WRAL also reported that Vance Jackson, the official in charge of DEQ’s underground tank trust fund at the time, had been contacted twice by Gillespie about Southeast’s tanks. Jackson said he did not view the contacts as political pressure.

Sharon Martin, a DEQ spokeswoman, provided a statement to The N&O on Monday evening: “DEQ cooperated with and supplied information to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement’s previous investigation into this matter. DEQ will continue to cooperate and supply information to the state ethics board as requested.”

Southeast had bought the closed chicken plant in 2013 for $85,000 and sold it to Mountaire three years later for $550,000. Mountaire expects to have the plant reopened by the end of this month.