Under the Dome

Groups seek to force testimony on coal ash regulation from governor’s top aide

Chief of Staff Thomas Stith, left, and Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013.
Chief of Staff Thomas Stith, left, and Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013.

UPDATED Attorneys for several environmental groups on Tuesday asked a judge to compel Gov. Pat McCrory’s top aide to answer questions in a deposition about interactions among the utility, the governor and state regulators involved in coal ash pollution cleanup.

Thomas Stith, the chief of staff, declined to answer those questions in a deposition on Sept. 1 on the advice of his attorney, according to the motion filed in state court by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The governor’s office hired outside counsel J. Dickson Phillips with the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law firm, to represent Stith.

Phillips stated in the deposition that Stith shouldn’t be required to testify because of his position in the governor’s office and because he doesn’t work with the state agencies involved in coal ash cleanup. Stith voluntarily agreed to answer questions about remarks he made at a news conference in August, but was not prepared to go beyond that, Phillips said in the deposition.

Stith convened the news conference late at night to refute the claims of a state toxicologist who had testified that he thought the administration’s involvement in the issue was “highly unethical and possibly illegal.”

Stith said the toxicologist, Ken Rudo, “lied under oath” about the circumstances surrounding a meeting that had been called to communicate to private well owners the potential risks of contamination from nearby coal ash ponds. In his deposition, which was filed with the motion, Stith acknowledged he hadn’t read all of Rudo’s deposition before accusing him of lying.

SELC argues that Duke Energy and the governor’s office have worked closely together on coal ash, and Stith has first-hand knowledge about the issues. The motion points out that McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 29 years, hires the state’s top environmental regulator, and that “many” of the Department of Environmental Quality’s employees no longer have civil service protections under the McCrory administration.

“There can be no doubt that the governor and his office are deeply involved in DEQ’s handling of Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution,” the motion says. “… Indeed, Mr. Stith considers himself so well informed that he publicly accused a senior, long-serving state official of lying under oath in this proceeding.”

Josh Ellis, the governor’s spokesman, pointed out that the lawsuit at issue is between DEQ, the environmental organizations and Duke Energy.

“Despite the fact that our office has no relevancy to this legal case, we've done more than enough to accommodate the SELC's request by voluntarily allowing the deposition of two employees and producing hundreds of pages of documents” Ellis said. “We’re not going to subject state employees to what we view as an abuse of the legal process — especially when it is increasingly clear that the goal for the SELC is publicity, not fact finding.

“More importantly, the SELC is attempting to distract attention from the fact that other parties involved have resoundingly rejected Ken Rudo’s statements under oath.”

Update: On Wednesday state party officials jumped into the fray.

House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Democrat from Durham, called for an independent investigation.

“This is unacceptable,” Hall said in a statement the N.C. Democratic Party released. “The governor must recuse himself and his staff from taking any further action in this matter, assist in a full and independent investigation, and order Mr. Stith to cooperate and testify in court about the circumstances around the decision to rescind do-not-drink orders near Duke Energy coal ash ponds.”

N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse responded by calling Hall’s remarks “a political circus.”

“Thomas Stith is a man of honor and integrity,” Woodhouse said.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO