State Politics

Pipeline extortion? NC GOP leaders say Gov. Cooper should face criminal investigation

The leaders of the North Carolina Republican Party have asked U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to start a federal criminal investigation into Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper, a Democrat, has been under fire since January regarding his administration's approval of a key permit that a group of energy companies needed to build a multi-state pipeline to carry natural gas through North Carolina. The same day that approval went through, the companies behind the pipeline agreed to pay $58 million to the governor's office for work on environmental mitigation and economic development projects.

"It's an obvious pay-to-play situation," said Robin Hayes, the chairman of the NCGOP, during a Tuesday morning press conference outside the federal courthouse in Raleigh.

This is just the latest of several Republican-led efforts to bring more attention to the process, which Cooper's office has repeatedly defended as being not only legal, but good for the state. And on Tuesday, the North Carolina Democratic Party again defended the governor.

“Republicans from day one have tried desperately to undermine Governor Cooper by raiding much-needed economic development efforts for eastern North Carolina, flailing from one absurd conspiracy to the next,” Kimberly Reynolds, the executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party, said in a news release.

A conservative think tank, the Civitas Institute, has filed an ethics complaint against Cooper regarding the pipeline deal. And in the state legislature, Republican Sen. Bill Rabon last week called on a joint committee to hold a formal hearing on the matter, which could allow members of the General Assembly to force Cooper and his aides to produce documents or answer questions under oath.

The latest request on Tuesday, sent to both Sessions and the local U.S. attorney's office, asks for an investigation into whether Cooper violated a law called the Hobbs Act.

The pipeline builders agreed to pay the full $58 million only if the pipeline was approved and built. Cooper's office has said that makes sense, since the money was to be spent on projects related to the pipeline — both to deal with environmental problems and to help spur business growth in some of the more rural parts of the state it will pass through.

Cooper's defenders have also pointed to the fact that leaders in Eastern North Carolina's agriculture industry, including the NC Farm Bureau, say they are the ones who originally asked for the money to be provided. They've said they wanted to help local businesses tap into the pipeline. And an official from the Department of Environmental Quality, which approved the pipeline's permit, told legislators last week that the permit's approval had nothing to do with the $58 million fund.

But Cooper's Republican critics don't buy it. They say they believe Cooper knew the more liberal part of his base would be mad about the pipeline, and that he essentially forced the companies behind it to pay up in order to receive the needed go-ahead to start construction.

Dallas Woodhouse, the NCGOP executive director, said it appears that "the governor leaned on these power companies for a $58 million slush fund so he could pay off his environmental buddies and deal with a political problem."

The money itself is now in limbo. The General Assembly quickly passed a new bill into law last month — which Cooper decided not to veto — that moved the $58 million out of Cooper's office and into a fund meant for public schools near the pipeline. But Cooper's office has said since that wasn't part of the deal the pipeline companies agreed to, he fears that the state might now miss out on all the money.

“Sacrificing jobs in order to manufacture a partisan power grab is a new low and legislators will have to answer to the people of eastern North Carolina,” Kristi Jones, Cooper's chief of staff, said last week.

The Hobbs Act, which the GOP is saying Cooper may have violated, is an anti-extortion law that was originally aimed at cracking down on mob racketeering but in recent years has been used for political corruption cases as well.

Woodhouse on Tuesday mentioned the conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, on a number of charges including extortion. Blagojevich remains in prison, although on appeal a higher court struck down four of his 18 convictions — including the most well-known one, related to his attempt to sell the appointment of Barack Obama's soon-to-be-empty seat in the U.S. Senate after Obama was elected president.

The judges concluded Blagojevich shouldn't have been offering the Senate seat up in exchange for a financial benefit, but that his attempts to benefit politically as part of the trade weren't criminal.

And since the jury was not told to consider the difference between the two, the conviction was thrown out. The federal appeals court noted that politically motivated deal-making is not only legal in politics, it's necessary.

"Governance would hardly be possible without these accommodations," the appeals court opinion said.

North Carolina Republicans didn't suggest they have any evidence of the kind of corruption ascribed to Blagojevich.

There doesn't appear to be any evidence that Cooper would have personally benefited from the fund, either financially or otherwise.

Cooper owns several hundred acres of land near the pipeline's path. However, he said before the fund was shut down that none of the money would go to projects on any of his properties.