Raleigh, N.C. – Citing multiple conflicts of interest, Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) are calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to recuse himself from taking action on legislation that would divert nearly $58 million away from a controversial extra-governmental fund he negotiated and instead give it to poor, rural eastern North Carolina school districts in the path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The leaders say Cooper should refrain from acting in light of a recently-filed ethics complaint that calls into question whether his obtaining $57.8 million from the energy companies building the pipeline just before granting a key permit to advance it violated the North Carolina State Government Ethics Act – especially since the bill also establishes a bipartisan board to investigate ethic complaints like the one filed against him.
On Tuesday, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that Cooper and his family potentially stand to personally benefit from the $57.8 million fund as owners of close to 400 acres of land near the pipeline’s projected path.
And on Wednesday, the same day the ethics complaint was filed, the N.C. Insider reported on the Cooper administration’s ‘unusual’ move ordering the staff at the agency overseeing elections and ethics enforcement to ‘halt all activity’ related to getting the bipartisan board up and running or ensuring elections and ethics law compliance. The agency’s counsel wrote that its work has never been ‘subject to a new day-to-day control’ and the governor’s interference ‘would mark a departure from the historic independence of elections civil staff.’
“House Bill 90 contains important budget provisions that fund class size reductions and elective teachers, but because it also contains budget provisions related to both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the bipartisan state ethics board, Gov. Cooper faces a serious potential conflict of interest if he signs or vetoes this bill,” said Berger and Moore. “To help avoid the potential conflicts of interest created by the ethics complaint he is facing and the property he owns near the pipeline, Gov. Cooper should immediately recuse himself from acting on this bill and allow it to become law without his signature.”
Within hours of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issuing a major permit to advance the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in late January, Cooper announced he obtained $57.8 million from the energy companies building the pipeline to stash in a pot of money he would have unfettered control over for “environmental mitigation” and other projects. This exchange, which was described as a “voluntary contribution” by Cooper’s PR team, has raised a number of ethical and constitutional concerns across the political spectrum.
And less than two weeks after this transpired, the N&O reported Gov. Cooper hired a former lobbyist for Dominion Energy, one of the companies working to build the pipeline, to be his personal lobbyist. The governor did not disclose the potential conflict of interest when announcing the hire, and the lobbyist declined to answer most questions about the fund when testifying at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Appropriations/Base Budget committees this past Thursday. The Senate and House Rules Chairmen sent him follow-up questions in writing.
Additionally, Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison told WRAL-TV: “It wasn’t that they (the energy companies) were paying $57 million or whatever it was to get the permit. It was just that that was a condition of getting the permit granted…”
State and federal law already requires utilities building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to meet environmental mitigation requirements before the project can receive approval.