The state Republican Party has asked for a federal investigation of the side deal struck between the Cooper administration and the utilities that will operate the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
At a Tuesday press conference at the federal courthouse in Raleigh, NCGOP Chairman Robin Hayes and Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse announced the complaint against Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. The complaint asks U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to consider charging Cooper with extortion under the Hobbs Act, a federal anti-corruption law.
“It’s an obvious pay-to-play situation,” Hayes said of the pipeline deal, which Cooper insists is unrelated to any environmental permits state officials granted to the pipeline operators.
Under the side deal, announced Jan. 26, the pipeline operators would place $57.8 million into a discretionary fund directed by the governor. The money would pay for unspecified environmental mitigation, economic development, and renewable energy projects in the eight N.C. counties through which the natural gas pipeline will run. In February, the General Assembly passed House Bill 90, a measure that, among other things, diverts that $57.8 million to the school districts in the eight affected counties.
The complaint says nothing in the Mitigation Memorandum of Understanding between Cooper, and the pipeline operators suggest the governor or the state “had a lawful claim to the $57.8 million the ACP had agreed to put into escrow.” According to the memo, the money wasn’t part of a settlement agreement based on any real or threatened lawsuit.
Instead, the complaint says the pipeline operator was fearful it would suffer some economic damage — by having its environmental permits denied, killing the project — unless it agreed to pay the $57.8 million to the fund controlled by the governor.
“With the Hobbs Act extortion, they [public officials] do not have to benefit personally,” Woodhouse said, echoing several legal precedents cited in the complaint. The public official directing or issuing the threat can be considered an extortionist even if that person stands to gain no financial benefit from the arrangement.
Kristi Jones, Cooper’s chief of staff, has defended the pipeline fund to lawmakers, saying it was established to provide economic development and environmental protections to counties affected by the pipeline.