A Superior Court judge heard arguments and motions in a case against the state attorney general’s (AG) office Thursday over environmental program funding that the plaintiffs say should go to the public school fund, in a legal action stemming from a $65 million agreement in 2000 between hog farmers in the state and the AG’s office.
Fines and forfeitures are directed to the public school fund under the state Constitution, as well as state law.
The agreement, settled in July of 2000, between Smithfield Foods, and its subsidiaries, with the state was to pay $15 million to North Carolina State University up front for research into technologies for more efficient, environmentally friendly, disposal of hog waste, and to pay $2 million annually for 25 years to a fund that the state attorney general, then Mike Easley, would control for the purpose of funding what the suit calls supplemental environmental programs.
The defendants argue that the funding is a voluntary agreement and not a settlement or a fine against Smithfield Foods.
For the last 16 years the fund has been administering grants at the discretion of the state attorney general – Easley and then Gov. Roy Cooper, and now Attorney General Josh Stein.
Civitas Institute President Francis De Luca and the New Hanover County Board of Education are bringing the case against Stein, in his official capacity.
When the case was originally filed last year it was against Cooper before he left office to take the oath of governor.
The plaintiffs were bolstered on Thursday with support from the NC School Boards Association in the form of an amicus brief, or friend of the court brief, in favor of De Luca and the New Hanover School Board’s position but the AG’s office collected some back up as well with the Southern Environmental Law Center filing a motion to intervene in the case.
Both parties filed motions for summary judgment on Thursday and made their arguments before the judge, according to Paul “Skip” Stam, the attorney for De Luca.
The judge will review the briefs over the weekend and on Monday will announce whether or not any more clarification is needed ahead of making a ruling on the case.
“We had a good hearing and I’m optimistic about our chances but I hate to predict the judges ruling,” Stam said. “Monday morning the judge will tell us if he wants us to come back for more.”
So far in the case De Luca and the New Hanover Board have seen success wherein last time the two parties met in court the AG’s office’s motion to dismiss the case was denied and a temporary injunction was granted to stop the AG’s office from spending any more of the settlement funds while the case is decided.
The only wish list item that the plaintiffs did not get was an order for the Attorney General’s office to begin recovery efforts for the funds outlaid reaching back to 2014, as state statute allows recovery of funds going back three years.
According to the court filing that would be just under $6 million over the last three years that the plaintiffs say should have gone to the public school fund.
“We were able to make our arguments before the court today and we await a resolution but it is encouraging to have the support of partners like the New Hanover County Board of Education and now the NC School Boards Association, through their amicus brief,” De Luca said. “This money was always supposed to go to our schools and hopefully soon it will.”