Politics & Government

NC Democrat faces ethics complaint over work for Duke Energy, Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Senate leader Phil Berger (Rep), left, confers with Sen. Dan Blue (Dem) as the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes for a special session this week.
Senate leader Phil Berger (Rep), left, confers with Sen. Dan Blue (Dem) as the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes for a special session this week. cseward@newsobserver.com

The top Democrat in the North Carolina Senate is facing accusations that Duke Energy is paying him as he helps advance the utility company’s legislative agenda.

A formal ethics complaint against Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a veteran politician from Raleigh, was filed Wednesday by NC WARN, an environmental group that routinely opposes actions taken by Duke Energy.

NC WARN said that Duke hired Blue’s law firm for work related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, so the state should investigate Blue’s recent actions sponsoring and then voting for a bill that Duke Energy backed.

“The ethics issue is clear-cut: Sen. Blue can’t serve the public interest when he’s heavily paid to serve the diverging interests of Duke Energy,” NC WARN President Jim Warren said in a press release Wednesday.

Blue denied that he has done anything improper.

“One would be stupid to serve in this body and be compensated for taking some act as a result of what they do here,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “I’ve served here for 30-some years, and this kind of out-of-the-sky accusation is absolutely absurd.”

Blue, whose district includes downtown Raleigh and neighborhoods throughout eastern Wake County, has long been a powerful lawmaker. He was the N.C. speaker of the House in the 1990s, before moving to the Senate in the 2000s.

“I haven’t been influenced by anything that Duke has done, directly or indirectly,” Blue said.

NC WARN said Wednesday that in addition to asking the State Ethics Commission to look into ties between Blue and Duke, the group also wants federal prosecutors to get involved.

Duke Energy declined to comment either on the ethics complaint itself or the company’s relationship in general with Blue or his law firm.

The complaint says Blue’s law firm, where his two sons also work, is representing Duke in at least 32 cases where the utility company is trying to get access to peoples’ land to build the pipeline. The pipeline is mostly owned by Duke Energy and a Virginia company called Dominion Energy.

“We believe the evidence will show that Sen. Blue has known since 2017 that he has a conflict in working for Duke and Dominion,” Warren said. “If they do a thorough job, the investigators will find it.”

Blue denied that the bill he recently sponsored, SB 559, is meant to help Duke.

“It is aimed toward the Utility Commission,” he said. “It does not give Duke anything.”

But Duke is far and away the largest provider of utilities in North Carolina, and critics of the bill say it will create new ways for the Utilities Commission to approve rate hikes requested by power companies. WRAL also previously reported that Duke helped write the bill, which Blue sponsored along with Republican senators Bill Rabon and Ralph Hise.

The complaint says Blue will personally benefit if the ACP is built, since his law firm will get more work, “and SB 559 will strengthen the chances that it is built.”

The complaint explains its reasoning behind that accusation, stating that “resumption of ACP construction, which is currently stalled, could be impacted by the bill because provisions of (the bill) could potentially shield Duke and Dominion from full risk if the troubled pipeline project collapses after heavy investments by the corporations.”

Blue, however, said the complaint is completely mistaken, both in its description of what the bill he sponsored would do and why he was hired by Duke.

“We do condemnations because we do real estate,” Blue said “That’s part of what my law firm does. They hired the firm to do (real estate). It has nothing at all to do with this legislation. It is not related to it. This legislation does not do any of the things, at least from what I’ve seen, that NC WARN has said in the past it does.”

Blue also said in a written statement that he supports building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline because it will help Eastern North Carolina.

“For me, it is personal; because I know what natural gas connections will do for areas like Robeson County, where I grew up,” Blue said. “The average household income is less than $30,000 and opportunities for quality jobs are scarce. The ACP is estimated to generate 4,400 new jobs; $680 million in economic activity; and $60 million in new tax revenue for North Carolina.”

Environmental groups, however, have a different opinion of the pipeline and its impact on Eastern North Carolina.

“It’s well-established that Duke Energy aimed the ACP at the part of North Carolina that’s disproportionally low-income and people of color,” said Connie Leeper, NC WARN’s organizing director, in a press release, adding that Blue “helped Duke target people’s homes, diminish their property values and put their health and safety at risk.”

Blue isn’t the only Democrat who has been accused of misdeeds related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Gov. Roy Cooper also had an ethics complaint filed against him by the conservative group Civitas Institute — which was dismissed after state investigators found no ethical violations.

Cooper also faced criticism from environmentalists for supporting the pipeline and later hiring a former pipeline lobbyist. Republican lawmakers have also called for investigations into whether Cooper did anything inappropriate regarding the pipeline.

Cooper has previously defended his work surrounding the pipeline project, with his office calling the accusations “political showmanship.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.
  Comments