Legislative leaders are calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to recuse himself from acting on legislation that would divert nearly $58 million away from a fund under the governor’s control filled by the corporations constructing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to school systems in the path of the pipeline.
Questions arose about the appropriateness of the fund after Cooper announced the fund alongside approval of a major water permit for the project, which came months ahead of schedule.
The bill that would transfer the $57.8 million to the various rural school districts in the path of the pipeline, HB90, also addressed class size reduction requirements and received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, passing in a 104 to 12 vote in the House and a 37 to five vote in the Senate.
Part of the reasoning that House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate Leader Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) called on Cooper to recuse himself comes from an ethics complaint filed against Cooper Wednesday by the newly-minted President of the Civitas Institute, Donald Bryson.
The complaint calls into question whether Cooper violated North Carolina State Government Ethics Act, as well as the fact HB90 includes a provision establishing a bipartisan board to investigate ethic complaints like the one filed against him.
The legislation sought to fix issues with the formation of an eight member board split evenly between the two largest political parties in the state highlighted in a recent North Carolina Supreme Court decision by adding a ninth unaffiliated member and allowing the governor to remove members at their discretion and not just for cause.
“House Bill 90 contains important budget provisions that fund class size reductions and elective teachers, but because it also contains budget provisions related to both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the bipartisan state ethics board, Gov. Cooper faces a serious potential conflict of interest if he signs or vetoes this bill,” Berger and Moore said. “To help avoid the potential conflicts of interest created by the ethics complaint he is facing and the property he owns near the pipeline, Gov. Cooper should immediately recuse himself from acting on this bill and allow it to become law without his signature.”
Bryson said that if the ethics board were to give the okay for this type of agreement to take place it would set a terrible precedent for what elected officials in the state can do outside of the constitutional process.
“This is a serious matter of public trust and transparency,” Bryson said. “The Cooper administration has provided so few details about this unprecedented new slush fund. It’s critical the people of North Carolina know exactly what happened and whether any of Cooper’s actions violate ethics laws. We hope the Ethics Commission will provide details and issue a clear opinion on the governor’s actions.”
When announcing the fund Cooper said the money would go to environmental mitigation projects but how the money would be spent was not defined, though it was communicated that it was Cooper’s intention that the funds would not be beholden to any legislative oversight.
State and Federal law already require projects of this nature to complete environmental mitigation projects raising the question of what the nearly $58 million would be used for.
Outside of the question of whether the funds constitute an illegal gift to the governor, there is another point of concern for the legislators asking Cooper to recuse himself from acting on the legislation.
As highlighted in a News & Observer article earlier this week, Cooper and his family own 400 acres in the projected path of the pipeline and possibly stand to profit from the project bringing up conflict of interest questions as well.
As of Friday Cooper had not taken any action on the bill, which was given final approval in on Tuesday.