A government watchdog group is accusing one of North Carolina’s most powerful legislators of using his political position for financial benefit – by stopping state regulators from cracking down on pollution at a property he owned and was trying to sell.
Tim Moore, a Republican, is the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and a lawyer from Cleveland County in Western North Carolina. He also co-owns a company called Southeast Land Holdings that in 2013 bought an abandoned chicken processing plant in Chatham County, according to an ethics complaint filed Monday morning.
That poultry plant is the focus of the ethics complaint filed by the Campaign for Accountability, a Washington-based group.
The group is asking North Carolina’s state ethics board to look into its accusations. The allegations focus on how state environmental inspectors treated the property in Siler City when it was co-owned by Moore, as well as Moore’s potential role in taxpayer-funded grants associated with the property.
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Moore denied that anything improper happened. He says he’s the victim of a politically motivated attack.
“This complaint is a meritless election-year political ploy,” Moore said in a written statement. “As the public records demonstrate, the Siler City project was a private property redevelopment handled properly by a state agency.”
Internal emails that the Campaign for Accountability says it obtained in public records from the NC Department of Environmental Quality show state officials waived a $5,880 late fee that Moore’s company owed, and also granted his company multiple extensions of a deadline to address pollution on the site.
Those emails and other public records from DEQ “reveal that Speaker Moore directly intervened with state officials to avoid the issuance of fines for failing to abide by the state’s environmental laws,” the complaint says.
DEQ officials could not be reached Monday for comment regarding the accusations in the complaint.
Southeast Land Holdings, the company co-owned by Moore, bought the chicken plant for $85,000 in 2013 and sold it for $550,000 in 2016, according to the complaint. Moore’s financial disclosure forms required by the state show he owned 25 percent of the property.
“Speaker Moore appears to have managed to delay DEQ from engaging in any enforcement action, giving his company time to secure a buyer for the property, eventually allowing him to sell the property for $465,000 more than the purchase price, just three years earlier,” the complaint says.
Moore, though, said DEQ never gave his company any special treatment.
“DEQ and their underground storage tank division dealt with the project as they would any other business and we complied,” he said.
The Campaign for Accountability suggested that might not be true and has asked the state ethics commission to launch a formal investigation.
It’s unclear if that will happen. State law requires that all ethics investigations remain confidential unless the investigation either goes to a formal hearing or the accused person requests the details to be made public.
A ‘dubious’ explanation?
During the time in question, DEQ was run by political appointees of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory – including Donald van der Vaart, who is now under consideration for a top environmental post in the Trump administration. He frequently said while leading DEQ that he wanted the department to be more “customer-friendly” to businesses it interacted with.
Some of the internal DEQ emails show a former assistant secretary for the department, Tom Reeder, writing that the agency “should handle this case just like it would any other with similar circumstances.”
That appears to back up Moore’s claim that DEQ “dealt with the project as they would any other.”
However, the watchdog group says that’s not actually what happened.
“Reeder tells them to treat the situation normally, but then they don’t,” Daniel Stevens, the watchdog group’s executive director, said in an email. “Something changed, it’s just not clear what.”
The records show that Moore’s company was months late in registering two old, corroded underground storage tanks that received notices of violation from DEQ regarding pollution. After registering them, DEQ’s waived the company’s $5,880 late fee and granted it a one-month extension to deal with the pollution.
But it appears DEQ found that Moore’s company did nothing for more than six months, even though the one-month extension expired Nov. 2, 2014.
“No documentation has been received to date showing that any of these actions have been initiated,” a DEQ supervisor wrote on April 24, 2015.
A few days later, Moore got back in touch with a DEQ inspector about the violations. He said he could provide proof that his company had dealt with one issue and that he was trying to sell the plant to new owners who would take care of the other issue. The inspector wrote that she told Moore his plan “was not considered a proper corrective action” and so it would be “unlikely” to get another extension and avoid being fined.
Nevertheless, Moore asked for an extension and got it two days later.
Records show the DEQ supervisor who approved that extension, Linda Culpepper, emailed colleagues thanking them “for sending me the points we considered” in approving that extension.
But when the Campaign For Accountability requested those “points we considered” that Culpepper referenced, DEQ responded that they don’t exist. In a letter, a DEQ lawyer said Culpepper was actually talking about something that might happen in the future, but that never did.
The ethics complaint calls that explanation “dubious.”
But the pollution issues aren’t the only potential ethics violation the Campaign For Accountability is asking state officials to look into.
Taxpayer money for the plant
The ethics complaint also notes that before the plant’s eventual sale in 2016, a different deal fell through in 2014.
In that failed deal, the state’s Rural Infrastructure Authority board approved a $750,000 taxpayer-funded grant for a group of investors to buy the plant from Moore’s company. Moore is in charge of appointing five of that board’s 15 members. The other appointments are given to the governor and state Senate leader, who at the time were Moore’s fellow Republicans McCrory and Phil Berger.
That deal fell apart, the ethics complaint says, due to opposition from local Siler City officials. But not long after, a different company bought the plant, which had been one of Chatham County’s largest employers before it shut down in 2011.
Mountaire Farms’ purchase of the plant in 2016 from Moore’s company wasn’t directly subsidized by taxpayer dollars. But Mountaire did benefit from nearly $4 million in taxpayer-funded incentives within about six months of the sale.
Moore’s spokesman, Joseph Kyzer, did not respond to questions about the grants.
“Speaker Moore’s company also appears to have benefitted substantially from state funding and local tax breaks – benefits Speaker Moore may have influenced,” the ethics complaint says.
After the 2016 sale, the same Rural Infrastructure Authority that approved the 2014 grant approved a different $1.6 million state-funded grant for Siler City to upgrade its sewer system to accomodate Mountaire’s output. Chatham County leaders also gave the new owners $1.5 million in tax breaks, and Siler City leaders gave an additional $800,000 in tax breaks.