The heads of the House and Senate Rules Committees, on Monday, sent a joint letter to Gov. Roy Cooper’s recently hired Director of Legislative Affairs Lee Lilley, as well as to Cooper, requesting answers to more than a dozen questions relating to the $58 million fund provided to Cooper from energy companies constructing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The questions were first brought to Lilley over how the fund was provided to the state, which coincided with the issuance of a major water permit for the project, far ahead of schedule, at the House and Senate Appropriations/Base Budget meeting last week.
At the meeting Lilley did not have answers for the legislators, as he said he was unprepared to discuss that topic at the meeting, but said he would answer the questions following the meeting.
Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Bladen) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) sent the letter to Lilley asking that the questions be answered by Thursday, Feb. 15, giving Lilley a week since the meeting to address the questions.
In the letter the two said, “We understand you just recently started working as his lobbyist and felt you could not immediately answer a number of questions lawmakers had related to the roughly $58 million he obtained from energy companies within hours prior to his administration’s issuance of a major permit to advance the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. However, we are sure you can understand why many North Carolinians are concerned that it appears the governor obtained $58 million for a personal “’slush fund’ as ‘a condition of getting the permit granted.”’
The language referring to the fund as a condition of the permit being approved is that of Democrat Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) from an interview with WRAL where Harrison said, “It wasn’t that they (the energy companies) were paying $57 million or whatever it was to get the permit. It was just that that was a condition of getting the permit granted.”
Tuesday morning the House gave final approval to legislation to repurpose the fund to school districts within the path of the pipeline in bipartisan votes in both chambers.
The Senate passed the legislation last week in a 37 to five vote and the House passed it in a 104 to 12 vote Tuesday morning.
In the letter Lewis and Rabon expressed that the events have “raised a number of serious ethical and constitutional questions across the political spectrum about potential pay-to-play or pay-for-permit” and that North Carolinians deserve prompt answers.
The questions sent to Lilley on Monday made up what the legislators believed to be the most pressing of the questions sought in the meeting and ask that the questions be answered by Lilley, or by Cooper and his general counsel.
The questions sought by the legislators are:
1. Please explain how the governor’s office came to negotiate and obtain $57.8 million from the energy companies seeking to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?
2. Who specifically in the governor’s office and his administration was involved in negotiating the deal? Did Cooper personally bless the arrangement?
3. When and how did negotiations over what many are referring to as the governor’s personal “slush fund” start? Were the negotiated offers made in writing or in person? Are there other drafts you can share?
4. Were other matters beyond the pipeline addressed during negotiations? lf so, what matters?
5. How did the governor envision the extra-governmental fund working?
6. How did the governor plan to spend the money? Is he aware that state and federal law already require utilities building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to meet environmental mitigation requirements before the project can receive approval?
7. Can you clarify your response to this question as it appears to conflict with reports in the News & Observer: Will the ratepayers and consumers or shareholders pay for this $58 million extra-governmental fund?
8. Why does the governor’s office call this a “voluntary contribution” when Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison said it was “a condition of getting the permit granted” and the governor’s own spokesman has called the arrangement “negotiations,” which by definition are not voluntary?
9. Would the private parties involved in the negotiations agree with the governor’s assertion that this was a “voluntary contribution” completely unrelated to the permitting process?
10. Does the governor’s office think this type of activity – requesting large contributions from private businesses wanting to do business in our state – encourages economic development in North Carolina?
11. What other companies has the governor obtained “voluntary” 5SO million plus contributions to the state from? Is he currently or has he in the past solicited a similar contributions from other businesses or individuals? Were these companies also seeking environmental permits?
12. Do you think the solicitation and acceptance of this money by the governor erodes the public’s trust in the permit approval process?
13. Why does the governor’s office compare this agreement to actions taken in Virginia when the Virginia agreement was signed by the Commonwealth’s chief environmental regulator and went to specifically designated mitigation projects, while Gov. Cooper’s deal gives him unfettered control of an extra-governmental fund outside of the normal appropriations process allowed by the North Carolina constitution?
14. Is this arrangement an illegal and unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers or a violation of due process?
15. Does this arrangement run afoul of state ethics law that prohibits elected officials from using their office and title to solicit funds for personal benefit?
Please send responses to us by 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 15. This will have given the governor and his office a full week from the committee meeting to contemplate responses.