The most recent response from Gov. Roy Cooper to legislative leaders about a questionable $57.8 million funding arrangement with the operators of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline might lead to formal demands for information from the Cooper administration.
A release issued Tuesday, Feb. 20, from Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who lead each legislative chamber’s powerful rules committees, suggested the General Assembly could compel testimony and subpoena records relating to negotiations between the ACP and other parties, brokered by the governor and members of his staff.
The pipeline deal, announced Jan. 26 and signed by Cooper attorney William McKinney, would provide $57.8 million the ACP would pay into a discretionary fund controlled by the governor. Lawmakers, outside experts, and media outlets have questioned the legality of the deal because under it, the money would not go through the normal legislative budget process, as the state constitution requires.
Cooper has claimed the agreement is a voluntary contribution and that a separate board would control the funding, but the Mitigation Memorandum of Understanding between the governor’s office and the ACP doesn’t mention a separate board.
The General Assembly recently passed House Bill 90. Among other actions, the bill diverts pipeline money to school districts in the affected counties. Cooper said he would allow the bill to become law without his signature because the bill includes education spending he supports.
Tuesday’s release responded to a letter sent Monday from Kristi Jones, Cooper’s chief of staff, to the rules chairmen. In it, Jones defended the pipeline fund, saying it was established to provide economic development and environmental protections to counties affected by the pipeline. She also suggested the General Assembly had all the information it needed.
“Since you already have decided where this money should go, your new questions appear to be political in nature, as well as moot, and as such our office lets [an earlier letter] stand as its answer,” Jones wrote.
Lawmakers called the governor’s responses “evasive, incomplete, and insolent,” and the governor “angry and incoherent” at the Thursday press conference when he announced he would let H.B. 90 become law.
The legislative response cited a story from the Raleigh News & Observer noting that the Cooper family owns land in Nash County near the pipeline route and a Carolina Journal report on land Roy Cooper and his brother, District Court Judge Pell Cooper, owns where a solar farm operates. (A statement of economic interest from the governor said he divested his interest in the property housing the solar farm in 2014 but offered no other details.)
“The easiest way to get us to stop asking these questions is to answer them. By continuing to dodge them, the governor is only dragging this out,” Rabon and Lewis stated in their letter.
“The public deserves answers, and their elected representatives will exercise every tool at our disposal to get to the bottom of this.”
Rabon and Lewis do not offer specifics about “every tool,” but the next sentence of the news release offers a clue. “The General Assembly has statutory authority to compel testimony and obtain public and private records when necessary and when they are not voluntarily given,” the release states.