News: Quick Takes

Pipeline panel chairmen rebuff governor, saying he has no power to demand records

Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

In North Carolina, the legislative branch oversees the operations of the executive branch. Not the other way around.

That’s the message delivered by the Republican leaders of a legislative subcommittee probing Gov. Roy Cooper’s controversial $57.8-million Atlantic Coast Pipeline discretionary fund.

Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, Dec. 17 hand-delivered a letter to Cooper demanding the governor fully comply with the subcommittee’s public records request. They also rebuffed a call by Kristi Jones, Cooper’s chief of staff, for the subcommittee to turn over a raft of documents to Cooper.

The lawmakers’ action follows a Dec. 12 meeting at which the subcommittee, part of the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, voted to hire a private investigation firm to review documents and interview executive branch officials about Cooper’s fund.

Opponents of the discretionary fund argue it not only was unconstitutional — because it would have gone directly to the governor with no legislative oversight — but also might have been part of a pay-to-play scheme. The $57.8 million fund was approved within 24 hours of Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality granting the pipeline coalition a long-delayed permit. Republicans want to know if the permit was held hostage to the pipeline payment.

“To be clear, your continued failure to respond to our February 16, 2018 and September 7, 2018 questions and to respond directly to our November 16, 2018 public records request would be an unacceptable continuation of your administration’s failure to provide transparent government to the people of North Carolina,” the letter to Cooper stated.

While in office, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was often and strongly criticized by the media for a lack of transparency. His successor Cooper has not experienced the same level of reproach, even though his refusal to release documents has a strange twist. As attorney general he oversaw production of North Carolina’s Guide to Open Government and Public Records in conjunction with the N.C Press Association.

In a letter included with that guide Cooper wrote: “The spirit with which public officials work to comply with the law is as important as the law itself. Recognizing that the public’s business should be done in the open and honoring requests for help serves the people as well as those who seek to inform them. In fact, the policy of the state of North Carolina is to allow public access to the activities of government.”

Brown and Arp took exception to Jones’ refusal to specify in her request for documents what information she planned to release on Thursday.

They said the lack of cooperation frustrates the legislature’s “duty to oversee governmental operations, which is critical to our system of government and the protection of North Carolina taxpayers.”

They also noted the executive branch has no authority to oversee ongoing legislative investigations.