Cooper staffers will testify on pipeline deal

GOP lawmakers investigating deal that would have established $58 million fund under governor’s control

Roy Cooper
In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper responds to a question during an interview at the Governor's mansion in Raleigh, N.C. Cooper hasn’t given up yet on Apple creating more jobs soon in North Carolina. Cooper declined to comment Wednesday on why the state didn’t land thousands of new jobs that Apple announced last week would go to Texas. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — The ongoing investigation of Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration over a controversial settlement agreement involving permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is nearing its end.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow) and Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union) sent Cooper a letter giving him three options for cooperating with their investigation. The legislators told the governor that their investigators “have informed us that they have nearly concluded their witness interviews.”

The pair then said Cooper’s options were to allow his “employees to speak with the independent oversight investigators,” designate certain staff — or the governor himself — to testify before the Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or have the legislature subpoena the individuals if their testimony is needed to finish the investigation.

Cooper responded through his chief of staff, Kristi Jones, who said the request to interview Cooper’s staff “raises unprecedented separation of powers questions.” Jones also called the investigation “outrageous” and accused the legislature of “dredging up old inquiries into an executive act that is almost two-years old.” She also instructed Brown and Arp to “inform your hired Republican investigators that members of the Office of the Governor decline interviews.”

Jones concluded her response with an agreement to allow the governor’s staff to “answer questions at a public hearing in order to put this fully and finally to rest once and for all.”

The investigation is focused on a settlement agreement between Cooper and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline where the pipeline group would be required to pay $58 million into a fund to be administered by Cooper as a condition of receiving their permits.

Following the announcement of the deal, Brown and Arp raised concerns about documents mentioning Cooper’s role in a separate but concurrent negotiating effort in late 2017 to work out a policy disagreement between Duke Energy — one of the pipeline’s builders — and the solar industry.

The pipeline memorandum, announced with a separate agreement that would have expanded solar production, could have eased the disappointment of the environmental community over the pipeline permit’s approval.

In her letter to Brown and Arp, Jones claimed that “the solar settlement to which you refer was advanced by Republican members of the General Assembly and approved by the NC Utilities Commission.”

The settlement agreement grandfathered hundreds of solar projects allowing higher reimbursement rates. That agreement was signed by David Fountain, Duke Energy N.C. president; Christopher Ayers, executive director of the public staff at N.C. Utilities Commission; and various solar entities, including the NC Clean Energy Business Alliance.

Under Cooper’s pipeline agreement, builders of the three-state natural gas pipeline were to give money that he would disburse for environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy projects. The memorandum and approval of a key state regulatory permit were announced separately the same day.

By February, the General Assembly had passed a law essentially intercepting the money, whenever it’s paid, and giving it instead to public schools in eastern counties along the pipeline route. Republicans said the General Assembly — not Cooper — decides how state funds are spent.

Cooper and the state Department of Environmental Quality have said repeatedly that the agreement wasn’t connected to the state regulatory permits for the pipeline. Cooper said the $58 million would have been distributed based on rules preventing conflicts of interest.

While some Democrats voted against hiring an outside investigator, citing costs, they also weren’t entirely opposed to getting more details from Cooper’s administration.

“I think we should have information provided that would clarify ambiguity,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham County Democrat.

Construction of the 600-mile pipeline has started in North Carolina and West Virginia. The developers have sought permission to begin construction in Virginia, where they previously reached a somewhat similar $58 million memorandum with the state for forestry, wildlife and other environmental mitigation.

In a committee meeting in February of 2018, lawmakers grilled the governor’s legislative director, Lee Lilley, a former lobbyist for Dominion Energy, with questions about the fund’s management, origin and whether the money from energy companies was truly “voluntary,” as described by Lilley in the meeting.

“Do you know whether the governor has ever asked private parties for a voluntary contribution in connection with environmental permitting in the past?” asked Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus) in the meeting. Just a week on the job, Lilley had few answers but agreed to take the questions from lawmakers in writing.

While several Democrats on the committee objected to the line of questioning, Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) told television station WRAL, “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.”

Cooper did not respond to the written questions sent to him by the committee.