Gov. Roy Cooper and Secretary of the Environment Michael Regan discussed a controversial agreement with Dominion Energy about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but in a review of the first 1,854 pages of a public records request, there is no evidence of a pay-to-play agreement for a key water quality permit.
However, there are 17,000 documents to go.
The information was included among the more than 19,000 pages of documents that Gov. Cooper’s office provided to lawmakers, the media and other records requesters yesterday at 5:30 p.m. The media and some environmental advocates had requested the records 10 months ago.
This fall, lawmakers formed a Joint Government Operations subcommittee, which, after several attempts to informally get records from the governor, filed a formal public records request. The subcommittee also hired Eagle Intel, a private firm of three former special agents — one FBI and two IRS — to investigate the governor’s office and the circumstances behind the MOU.
In a letter, Gov. Cooper’s office told lawmakers earlier this month that the records would be provided by Dec. 20.
A year ago, on Dec. 11, 2017, Ken Eudy, senior adviser to Gov. Cooper, asked to meet with Regan and William McKinney, the governor’s legal counsel, about an “outline of an agreement” — the Memorandum of Understanding. That MOU, which is non-binding, established a voluntary $57.8 million fund to boost economic development and renewable energy projects in the eight counties along the 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina. The governor, not the legislature, would have ultimately decided how the money was spent.
“I want to make sure we’re aligned internally,” Eudy wrote to Regan and McKinney.
Regan was concerned about the environmental damage — to waterways, wildlife habitats and forests — that pipeline construction could cause. The permitting process for all aspects of the ACP had been lengthy. DEQ had repeatedly asked Dominion, which co-owns the ACP with Duke Energy, for more information before ultimately granting the water quality permit.
“Michael, the governor has been especially firm that we need to achieve the environmental protections that you and the department believe you need.” The MOU went through several drafts; at one point, the fund figure was $80 million.
The governor’s office publicly released the final MOU on Friday Jan. 26, 2018, at 12:53 p.m. — just 21 minutes after DEQ had announced it was granting the water quality permit.I want to make sure we're aligned internally Click To Tweet
The timing proved to be problematic. It immediately stoked suspicions among environmental advocates and Republican lawmakers — a rare alliance — that the fund was essentially payment for the permit.
Throughout the summer, lawmakers asked DEQ officials in committee meetings about their knowledge of the MOU. On several occasions, Division of Water Resources Director Linda Culpepper told lawmakers that she didn’t know about the MOU, “and I’m the one that signed that 401 [water quality permit] certification. I didn’t know about that fund [until] I saw it in the media after I had signed that permit, and it had been issued.”
Assistant Secretary of the Environmental Sheila Holman also told lawmakers she didn’t know about the MOU. None of the emails included in the first 1,854 pages was sent to either Culpepper or Holman. The only DEQ leadership involved in these emails was Regan and Deputy Secretary Doug Heyl.
The governor’s office, though, did know the timing of DEQ’s permit approval. Communications Director Sadie Weiner and Deputy Chief of Staff Julia White edited the DEQ press before it was released.
The fund has been fallow since its inception. In the summer, the legislature then commandeered control of the fund, passing a law that diverted the money to public school districts along the route. None of the money has been disbursed. Construction on the ACP has been halted because the Fourth Circuit of Appeals recently vacated a federal permit that would have allowed the pipeline to cross two national forests. The court ruled that Forest Service officials had “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”