Clamming Up: Cooper officials fail to show for pipeline slush fund corruption hearing

RALEIGH – Back in October there was a supposed to be a legislative committee hearing on the topic of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the timing of necessary permitting relative to the agreement for the supporting companies to establish a $58 million slush fund to be used at the sole discretion of Governor Cooper. The meeting with Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Michael Regan was postponed due to Hurricane Florence. The rescheduled date was November 14.

“We thought that was a reasonable request, and we delayed the meeting until today,” said committee chairman Sen. Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville).

But no one from the Cooper administration showed up.

Instead of facing the committee and providing answers to the deserving public on whether or not our governor held a permit until energy companies paid up so he could secure political capital by spending their capital, Regan (Cooper) stood the committee up plain and simple.

This isn’t the first time a Cooper secretary has stood up a legislative committee. During the secretarial appointment confirmation tussle, Cooper instructed his appointed secretaries to not attend confirmation hearings. While the consequences of that spat were relatively minor, the implications in the current scandal are much more serious and deserving of scrutiny. The administration’s obdurate behavior does not do them any favors as far as dispelling the stench of corruption.

In his opening statement at Wednesday’s meeting, sans the DEQ secretary, Brown excoriated the Cooper administration for repeatedly refusing to provide requested information to the legislature and thumbing their nose at the law.

Then, committee members dug deep into the ‘agreement’ between the energy companies and Governor Cooper specifically, details of which were at the sly direction of Cooper chief of staff Ken Eudy. Instead of funding ‘mitigation efforts’ via a contribution to the State, the modified the agreement so that the funds would be managed exclusively by the governor.

All the while, the key permits for the pipeline project to move forward were being ‘reviewed’ by Cooper’s leaders at DEQ. Then, curiously, the MOU for a ‘voluntary’ contribution of $57.8 million from the energy companies to the governor, and the permit approval papers for the project were released within a day of each other.

Making things even more fishy, in the DEQ files for the ACP project was included a draft of a permit denial letter. No specific reasons for denial are mentioned in the letter. Could it be that this is what the ACP partners would have received if they had refused to pay up?

The serious questions these curiosities raise are exactly why lawmakers are looking for answers from Cooper and his administration. And Cooper is stonewalling.

Does Cooper expect this to just go away if he ignores it long enough? Even the appearance of corruption at this high a level deserves the utmost transparency. Tens of millions of dollars were pledged in what appears to be a big pay-to-play abuse of power. The use of that money is intentionally vague in the agreement that the governor could buy political influence with economic development dollars and thus secure his political future in 2020.

The people of North Carolina won’t appreciate being played for fools, and his snubbing of oversight hearings indicates he’s taking exactly that route. This investigation should press forward despite Cooper’s intransigence. Lawmakers suggested just that Wednesday, with Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus) officially recommending the co-chairs hire outside investigators to look into the matter further and collect all relevant records and documentation related to the deal.

During the hearing’s public comment period, which was wide open considering not one Cooper official bothered to show up, one concerned citizen lambasted Cooper from the Left. A woman representing environmental groups opposed to the pipeline thinks the permit should have never been approved in the first place, and they worry would deals were made to approve it. Similar to the legislature, her organization’s public records requests have been ignored by the Cooper administration.

Can you imagine the uproar that would be dominating local and state news media if a Republican governor was standing up a Democratic legislature over a fossil fuel pay-to-play slush fund scheme? A Democrat governor does it, and, ‘Eh?’

This issue, however, is not going away. The longer Cooper stalls, the more questions pile up demanding to be answered before 2020.

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