RALEIGH — A probe that began in December 2018 into how Gov. Roy Cooper’s office handled a $57.8 million mitigation fund for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is seeing renewed activity.
Hearings on the pipeline will commence in November, according to legislative leaders. In a recent interview, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said he intends to make the results of those hearings public.
The controversy over the pipeline fund dates back to 2017 when the Cooper administration negotiated the establishment of the fund with the ACP. The agreement gave control and spending authority over the funds to Cooper instead of the General Assembly, which raised some eyebrows. The mitigation fund was labeled a “slush fund” by some, but Cooper and his staff term it as a “mitigation fund” or a “voluntary contribution.”
Legislators asked Cooper’s office for records, documents and interviews throughout 2018. The Friday before Christmas 2018, the Cooper administration released more than 19,000 pages of documents.
Included in the document dump was a 2017 memo outlining “ACP mitigation options” along with text messages between Cooper’s top adviser, Ken Eudy, and the governor’s chief counsel, McKinney. The memo and text messages seemed to indicate that Cooper had delayed signing the ACP agreement in order to leverage a deal for Duke Energy to buy more solar power.
On Oct. 11, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow) and Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union) sent a letter to Cooper that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline probe interviews were nearly over and said Cooper’s staff could either speak directly with the investigators, testify before the ACP subcommittee voluntarily or be subpoenaed to testify.
Eagle Intel Services LLC, a firm composed mainly of former FBI agents, was hired by the General Assembly to investigate possible “pay-to-play activity” surrounding the pipeline agreement and has reportedly been paid around $60,000 as of July for 545 hours of work.
Cooper responded to Brown and Arp through Kristi Jones, his chief of staff. Jones’s letter back to Brown and Arp called the investigation “outrageous” and denied access to staff, telling legislators to “inform your hired Republican investigators that members of the Office of the Governor decline interviews.”
Six days after refusing to allow staff to be interviewed, Jones then filed a records request asking for recordings of interviews and transcripts from the investigation.
The Charlotte Observer Editorial Board noted the problematic nature of Jones’ request, writing in an op-ed, “If that request is granted, the subject of an investigation could get to see the product of that investigation before he or his staff testify. That’s disturbing.”
Cooper’s chief of staff has been joined by House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County in pushing back on the proposed ACP hearings.
Jackson attacked the idea of an ACP subcommittee in an Oct. 23 letter sent to Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) and Moore. In the letter, Jackson asserted that leadership had no authority to establish a pipeline subcommittee.
“House and Senate Democrats have participated in those subcommittee meetings,” said Joseph Kyzer, communications director for Moore. “The subcommittee has been around dating back to last year, so we’re not quite sure why the objections are being raised now.”
The first subcommittee on the ACP was authorized in September 2018.
Jackson told NSJ that he received an email on Oct. 24 indicating he had not been reappointed to the Joint Legislative Committee on Government Operations, which is the parent commission for the ACP subcommittee. In an interview last week, Jackson had implied that he was kicked off the committee over his Oct. 23 letter.
“I have in no way attempted to obstruct the Commission or the ACP investigation,” said Jackson in an email to NSJ. “I shared my findings weeks in advance so that the errors could be corrected and the hearings could take place on schedule but in a legal fashion. I simply wanted to participate and therefore pointed out the fact that commissions can’t create sub-committees.”
Speaker Moore said in an Oct. 26 interview with Tim Boyum of Spectrum News that he decided not to appoint Jackson to the committee several days before Jackson sent his letter.
“In fact, I think the appointment letter is even dated in advance of that,” Moore said.
Moore also said he had replaced Jackson with another Democrat, Rep. Billy Richardson who represents Cumberland County
Jackson’s recent conduct was a driver for replacing him on the committee. Moore said in his interview that Jackson was “really just acting in a way that a representative should not act” and that he had been “very insulting to other members.” Moore added that Jackson had been “engaging in a lot of hyperbole that isn’t helpful and isn’t productive.”
In September, Jackson told several media outlets that House leadership had announced there would be “no votes” during the session where the governor’s veto of the budget was overridden. As it turned out, a memo sent by one of Jackson’s staffers was the origin of his “no votes” claim. Jackson later said he had taken “a lie-detector test” about it and publicly challenged the speaker and House leadership to do the same.
In the last month on the House floor, Jackson had also made remarks about a rumor that Moore was eyeballing the chair position on the UNC Board of Governors. Moore has no intention of seeking the position and is focused on reelection, according to Kyzer.
In both his letter and during his own interview with Boyum, Jackson claimed that it’s against statute for private investigators to ask questions of witnesses in hearings. Statute does allow for independent investigators to question witnesses; however, such questions do have to be asked through the committee chair.
During the interview with Boyum, Jackson said he believed that the ACP inquiry was an attempt to “tear down” Cooper.
“Governor Cooper’s popularity numbers are off the charts,” Jackson told Boyum. “Just this week, a Civitas poll had him up over ten points over the lt. governor, and so they can’t beat him on that kind of thing so they are attempting to tear him down.
The Civitas poll Jackson referred to also shows Cooper’s job approval has slowly declined over the past seven months, dropping from 58% in March to 51% in October, and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest closing the gap between himself and Cooper.
The subcommittee will be named this week and legislative leaders say the subcommittee is likely to meet next week.