Under the Dome

Pat McCrory sees ‘culture of corruption,’ calls for investigation of pipeline fund

A map provided by protesters shows the route the proposed natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline would take through eight North Carolina counties.
A map provided by protesters shows the route the proposed natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline would take through eight North Carolina counties. News & Observer

Former Gov. Pat McCrory called for an ethics investigation of his successor on Monday as legislative Republicans sent Gov. Roy Cooper’s aide a long list of questions about a $57.8 million pipeline fund.

The letter to Cooper’s legislative director, Lee Lilley, came several days after Lilley got a surprise interrogation at a legislative committee meeting about the mitigation fund that the Democratic governor privately negotiated with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and announced on the same day the interstate project won a key state environmental permit.

“We are sure you can understand why many North Carolinians are concerned that it appears the governor obtained $58 million for a personal ‘slush fund’ as ‘a condition of getting the permit granted’ (the latter are the words of Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison.),” Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon and House Rules Chairman David Lewis wrote Monday. “This series of events has raised a number of serious ethical and constitutional questions across the political spectrum about potential pay-to-play or pay-for-permit, and deserve prompt answers.”

The letter requests answers to 15 questions by 4 p.m. Thursday. The questions involve how the negotiations toward the fund came about, who was involved in the negotiations, how the money will be spent, and whether the agreement is “an illegal and unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers or a violation of due process.”

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter defended the fund in a news release last week. “The ACP has provided similar funds in Virginia and engaged in negotiations with all three states where construction is to occur,” Porter said.

The pipeline will pass through eight counties and run along the Interstate 95 corridor, delivering natural gas to Duke Energy power plants and other uses.

“It was intended that decisions about the distribution of the fund would be made by experts through an open and transparent application process for government entities and qualified non-profits,” Porter said. “The Rural Infrastructure Authority and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund are examples of two places that could fulfill those goals and distribute the funds. This is a good thing for our state. For Republican legislators to hijack this mitigation fund in favor of partisan political attacks is shameful and hurts eastern North Carolina.”

Shortly after the Rabon and Lewis letter was released to the news media by a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, McCrory shared it on Facebook and Twitter. The former governor, who now hosts a daily talk radio show in Charlotte, was among the first Republicans to criticize the agreement.

“The people of North Carolina will not stand for a culture of corruption and it’s time for a full and complete ethics investigation!” McCrory said in his post Monday.

In an interview with The News & Observer on Tuesday morning, McCrory said he’s never heard of a governor setting up a “slush fund” like this and that his administration never would’ve done it.

He said it “sets up a dangerous precedent” not only for state government but for local governments across the state.

“At minimum, it gives the perception of a pay-to-play system and at maximum the reality of it,” McCrory said.

Cooper’s office has denied similar claims, saying the pipeline builders’ payment for the fund is voluntary and that it was negotiated separately from the permit.

“There are so many questions that need to be answered,” McCrory said. “For one, how can you ‘negotiate’ a ‘voluntary’ payment?”

He criticized the media, saying if he had set up a fund like Cooper’s “there would be front page editorials calling for an investigation.”

McCrory cautioned the legislature against using the funds at all. Republicans in the legislature propose removing the fund from Cooper’s control and directing the $57.8 million to public schools located along the pipeline route. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill redirecting the money and the House is poised to consider it Tuesday.

“Regardless of how it’s spent, accepting it is wrong,” McCrory said.

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