Cooper administration refusing to let workers be interviewed

Published: Jan. 23, 2019 at 4:05 PM EST
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Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers are battling over the General Assembly's methods to scrutinize a side deal the governor reached last year with developers of a natural gas pipeline.

A legislative oversight committee agreed last month to hire an investigative firm led by former IRS and FBI agents to examine the January 2018 memorandum of understanding between Cooper and utilities building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The decision followed months in which Cooper and his office declined to answer directly all of the legislators' questions or provide documents they requested.

But Cooper's administration told panel leaders last week it won't let career environmental regulators contacted by the firm this month speak with the investigators. The workers have no legal protections from inappropriate questions that are extensions of an "extraordinarily open-ended political fishing expedition," wrote Kristi Jones, Cooper's chief of staff.

The panel's co-chairmen responded Wednesday, describing as "outrageous" Jones' arguments that there were no rules preventing the ex-agents who operate Eagle Intel Service from using what she called "underhanded or even illegal" interrogation methods.

"We are deeply disappointed that you chose to impugn the character of career federal law enforcement officials as cover in your effort to shield the public from the truth of your administration's dealings," Republican Sen. Harry Brown of Onslow County and Rep. Dean Arp of Union County wrote Cooper. WRAL-TV first reported about the correspondence.

Arp and Brown said Eagle Intel would continue to contact potential interviewees, but Jones said the panel could not outsource its oversight functions, and that administration leaders could provide — if requested — more answers to questions in an open committee meeting. The committee could subpoena witnesses.

The $57.8 million described in the memorandum deal that the companies agreed to pay was supposed to go to environmental mitigation, renewable energy and economic development projects along the pipeline proposed pipeline's route in eastern North Carolina. GOP legislators have been suspicious since that agreement and the approval of a separate key regulatory permit for the North Carolina section of the three-state pipeline were announced separately on the same day.

Cooper and his Department of Environmental Quality have repeatedly rejected suggestions by critics that the mitigation package was a prerequisite for the pipeline permit. They said DEQ solely made the permit decision and that the mitigation memo was negotiated by Cooper to ensure economic benefits for the pipeline region. Republicans also said Cooper had no constitutional authority to direct how the money would be spent.

Five days before Christmas but after the decision to hire Eagle Intel, the administration released at least 19,000 pages of documents related to the pipeline. Lawmakers and media outlets have been reviewing the reams of electronic documents, which largely confirm the department's role alone in evaluating the permit.

"We have answered your questions and have provided the information you requested," Jones wrote Jan. 17.

But Brown and Arp raised concerns about documents mentioning Cooper's role in a separate but concurrent negotiating effort in late 2017 to work out a policy disagreement between Duke Energy — one of the pipeline's builders — and the solar industry. The pipeline memorandum, announced with a separate agreement that would have expanded solar production, could have eased the disappointment of the environmental community over the pipeline permit's approval.