News: Quick Takes

Legislative leaders question possible benefits ACP fund may offer governor

Gov. Roy Cooper in June 2017 (CJ file photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper in June 2017 (CJ file photo)

A special legislative investigative panel wants to know if Gov. Roy Cooper was in line to benefit personally from solar energy companies by creating a $57.8 million “slush fund” paid for by Atlantic Coast Pipeline developers.

Shortly before the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations subcommittee was to meet Wednesday, Nov. 14, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, sent out previously unreleased communications with Cooper related to the oversight investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, subcommittee co-chairman, and Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, a subcommittee advisory member, sent a list of questions to Cooper Sept. 7. One related to Cooper’s land leases to solar energy companies that Carolina Journal has looked into (see here, here, and here). CJ was first to report on the pipeline irregularities, and has covered the situation extensively (see complete set of stories here).

The senators were looking at Cooper’s solar dealings in relation to a memorandum of understanding his office created with pipeline partners to secure the $57.8 million. Cooper claimed it was a voluntary contribution to repair environmental damage, for economic development, and solar energy projects.

“The Governor leased a portion of his property, which lies close to the projected path of the ACP, to a renewable energy company in a potentially lucrative arrangement,” their letter stated. “The Governor negotiated an MOU to grant himself control over funding that would benefit renewable energy companies. Does the Governor believe that there are any conflicts of interest or ethical issues raised by this?”

Also on the list of questions presented to the governor is why a high-ranking state Department of Environmental Quality regulator was removed from his job when he was nearing final approval of a necessary state water permit to allow pipeline construction to go forward.

“Please explain why the Director of the Division of Water Resources (DWR), Mr. Stanley ‘Jay’ Zimmerman, was relieved of his duties as Division Director in November 2017 when, according to notes in the permit file for the ACP 401 Certification dated Nov 1, 2017,Mr. Zimmerman appeared to be making significant progress in the final issuance of the permit,” the letter stated.

The letter also seeks answers to who subsequently created draft letters denying the vital state water permit, and whether the governor’s office tied his push to get control of the $57.8 million with permit approval. Senators want to know when meetings were held with Duke Energy, one of the pipeline partners, and what was discussed.

Cooper also is asked to explain how the memorandum of understanding went through several revisions, ultimately ending up in Cooper’s office.

Why did the Governor renegotiate the original Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from the ACP Partners so that instead of the $57.8 million ‘contribution’ going to the Director of the Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) for environmental mitigation purposes, the funding was instead directed to an account controlled by the Governor for extension of renewable energy projects, funding for economic development, and environmental mitigation?” the letter stated.

The Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations created the investigative subcommittee Aug. 29, after voicing concerns that Cooper refused to answer a broad array of questions about the secretive handling of the multimillion-dollar mitigation fund.

DEQ officials testified at that meeting the $57.8 million was not necessary to cover any mitigation costs. The state already negotiated a $6 million payment to cover repairs of all environmental damage during the permitting process.

To date, the pipeline coalition has not submitted any of the $57.8 million to the state.