Courts & the Law, Governor Roy Cooper, News

Gov. Cooper names appeals court judge, Mark Davis, to N.C. Supreme Court

Newly appointed state Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis

North Carolina will soon have a full state Supreme Court, after Gov. Roy Cooper announced his appointment Monday of state Court of Appeals Judge Mark Davis to the high court.

Davis will fill the seat once occupied by new Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Cooper named Beasley to the chief justice role last month when the former chief justice, Mark Martin, retired at the end of February to take a job as the dean of Regent University’s law school.

Davis will take over Beasley’s former associate justice position, arriving in time to hear oral arguments when the state Supreme Court convenes in April. He also intends to run for election to a full eight-year term in 2020.

“I know Judge Davis is dedicated to his work and to serving the people of North Carolina, and I know he will continue to serve with distinction as an associate justice on the Supreme Court,” Cooper said.

This is the second time Davis, a registered Democrat, has succeeded Beasley. He was appointed to her Court of Appeals seat by former Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012, and won election to a full eight-year term in 2014. Davis was previously Perdue’s general counsel and, before that, served as a special deputy attorney general at the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Davis, who was born in Onslow County, also worked for more than a decade in the litigation section of the Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice firm, now Womble Bonds Dickinson.

Davis’ appointment shifts the balance of the Supreme Court to a 6-1 Democratic majority. Martin, the former chief justice, was a Republican, and GOP leaders had been hopeful Cooper would appoint a Republican to the high court to keep some balance. Cooper has said before that he would appoint the best person for the job.

Both Beasley’s and Davis’ seats will be up for election in 2020. Davis’ appointment also leaves a vacancy on the state Court of Appeals. Cooper will have the power to fill it.

Several people have already announced their intentions to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court, including the only Republican on the court, Justice Paul Newby, who will challenge Beasley for the leadership position.

Other likely candidates in 2020 include Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals – he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – and former state Senate member Tamara Barringer, a Wake County attorney.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(Note: Managing Editor Billy Ball contributed to this report.)

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Cooper’s environmental budget adds $6 million to tackle emerging contaminants

Gov. Roy Cooper announced his budget yesterday, which includes a 20 percent funding boost for the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s 500-plus page environmental budget would increasing funding by 17 to 20 percent for the state Department of Environmental Quality, the target of withering cuts by the Republican-led legislature over the last eight years.

Most notably, DEQ would receive more money to address two of the state’s biggest environmental challenges — emerging chemical contaminants in drinking water and pollution from industrialized hog farms — according to the governor’s new budget proposal.

For Year 1, Gov. Cooper’s budget recommends an appropriation of $95 million, up from $79 million currently in the base budget, a 20 percent increase. In Year 2 of the biennium, the recommended appropriation totals $93 million, a 17.5 percent increase.

More than half of DEQ’s current $193 million budget comes from federal grants, fees and other service-based receipts.

The legislature rarely aligns with the governor’s budget recommendations for DEQ. Since 2011, the Republican-majority legislature has slashed the department’s budget, and some lawmakers — Sen. Andy Wells and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, among them –have been openly hostile to increasing funding for DEQ.

The governor’s budget would add $6 million and 37 full-time equivalent positions to test, monitor and increase detection and prevention of perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — in  water and air. A portion of the money would also support the Bernard Allen Memorial Drinking Water Fund, which pays for monitoring and testing and, when necessary, alternate water supplies for low-income North Carolinians whose private wells have been contaminated. The fund kicks in only if the polluter is unknown or can’t pay for the clean up, usually because it has declared bankruptcy.

Gov. Cooper is also requesting a $30 million bond for DEQ to upgrade its Reedy Creek Road laboratory. The facility, which tests water and air samples, was built in 1991 and has never been renovated.

Three new positions would be created to help hog, poultry and cattle farmers manage wastewater and comply with state regulations. And $125,000 in grants would be available for qualified farmers whose waste lagoons and sprayfields are in the 100-year flood plain. The money would cover up to half the cost of installing groundwater monitoring wells, required under a civil rights settlement between neighbors of the hog farms and DEQ.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans to local governments for wastewater treatment facilities, would receive an $829,000 boost in matching funds. A similar program for drinking water would get an additional $2.6 million.

Brian Buzby, executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network, issued a statement supporting the governor’s recommendations. “We are pleased that the governor’s budget proposal recognizes the need to address some of the significant threats to North Carolina’s water and public health – like chemical contaminants and industrial hog waste — and we hope the leadership in the legislature will recognize this need as well,” Buzby said. “The Department of Environmental Quality has seen drastic cuts to its clean water programs in recent years and fulfilling these budget requests would be a strong step in the right direction.”

Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton, who is with the Haw River Assembly, said the group is “encouraged to see” the governor’s additions to the budget. North Carolinian’s have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water for too long; it’s time this issue is addressed. We urge lawmakers to follow his steps and begin prioritizing people over polluting industries.”

agriculture, Governor Roy Cooper

Cooper to Trump: End government shutdown, provide federal funds for hurricane recovery, NC farmers

Governor Roy Cooper is pressing President Donald Trump to end the federal government shutdown.

In a letter released Wednesday, Gov. Cooper wrote that the long-term work to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence is being delayed each day the shutdown continues. The shutdown is also negatively impacting farmers hoping to plan for this year’s planting season and need help from the US Department of Agriculture.

Here’s an excerpt from the governor’s letter:

“While we continue the short-term recovery with FEMA’s help, our critical long-term work to rebuild stronger and smarter is delayed with every day that federal funds are held in Washington,” Gov. Cooper wrote in the letter sent today.

In April 2018, North Carolina was notified of a $168 million award of Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) from the US Housing and Urban Development to make the state’s flood-prone areas safer. The state remains unable to use these funds until guidance is published in the Federal Register, which cannot happen while the federal government remains shuttered.

In September, a HUD appropriation for 2018 storms including Hurricane Florence was enacted as part of the FAA reauthorization bill but awaits allocation to affected states. The $1.68 billion allocated will be shared by North Carolina and other states recovering from natural disasters, but without guidance states are left waiting to learn how much funding they will receive and how best to put these funds to work for recovery and mitigation.

The shutdown also limits North Carolina’s access to HUD experts needed to help with rebuilding efforts in the state. In addition, North Carolina farmers are without help from federal agriculture experts at a critical time.

“The government shutdown is also threatening the livelihood of our farmers, many of whom were swamped by the same hurricane waters that destroyed homes and businesses,” Gov. Cooper wrote in his letter. “Help from the US Department of Agriculture for hurricane affected farms is unavailable, and farmers hoping to plan for this year’s planting season are running out of time. “

“During your visit following Hurricane Florence, you promised me the 100% support of the federal government in North Carolina’s recovery. This shutdown makes that promise harder to keep. Please work with Congressional leaders to end this shutdown so our communities can rebuild quickly and effectively.”

Read the full letter here.

Earlier this week the National Governors Association called on President Trump and congressional leaders to immediately end the partial federal government shutdown that began Dec. 22.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

Cooper administration’s dump of 19,000 documents shows who knew what when about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

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.”

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Private firm to investigate Gov. Cooper’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal: “We have no political agenda”

A private firm formed by three former federal agents will investigate Gov. Roy Cooper’s controversial memorandum of understanding with Dominion Energy over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

At a subcommittee meeting today, lawmakers announced they had hired Eagle Intel, based in Wilmington, to conduct the investigation. The firm, composed of Frank Brostrom, Tom Beers and Kevin Greene, incorporated last year. Brostrom worked for the FBI, and Beers and Greene for the Internal Revenue Service. Their areas of expertise focused on tax evasion and financial and political corruption, as well as organized crime and terrorism cases.

This is not a criminal probe, but a civil one, prompted by legislative oversight, said Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County.

The firm charges $100 an hour for its services, but until the investigation is under way, it’s unknown what the final cost will be.

Under the non-binding MOU signed by Cooper and Dominion nearly a year ago, the Virginia-based utility and Duke Energy, co-owners of ACP, LLC, would pay $57.8 million for economic development and renewable energy projects along the 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina. The announcement of the MOU coincided by just hours with the Department of Environmental Quality’s granting of a key water quality permit for the project.

Republican lawmakers then introduced and passed House Bill 90, which funneled the money away from its original purpose and toward public schools in the affected counties. However, no money has been disbursed yet. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not issued its final construction permits for part of the route in North Carolina, which would trigger half of the amount to be due.

The other half of the money would be payable when the ACP is completed. That could take years. Last week, a federal appeals court halted all construction on the 600-mile pipeline over US Fish and Wildlife’s questionable assessment of the project’s potential damage to endangered species.

DEQ and the governor’s office have denied working in tandem on the timing of the permit and the MOU. But Republican lawmakers want Eagle Intel to determine if the MOU involved “pay-to-play” — that the voluntary monetary contribution smoothed the way for the water quality permit.

Lawmakers, led by a Republican majoriy, informally requested documents from the governor’s office and DEQ about the MOU, but never received them, despite multiple inquiries. They filed a formal public records request last month. (Environmental advocates and the media, including Policy Watch, likewise filed records requests from the governor and received no documents of significance; the requests have yet to be completely fulfilled.)

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat on the panel that hired Eagle Intel, said the governor’s office and DEQ are expected to provide documents by Dec. 20. “I think it’s premature to investigate,” McKissick said.

But the governor’s office, as if to say, “touche’,” filed its own records request with lawmakers. In a document dated today, Dec. 12, Kristi Jones, the governor’s chief of staff, formally asked for voluminous information that could reveal whether Republican lawmakers’ concerns are legitimate or merely a power play. Among the governor’s request is communications among legislators, staff and any third parties, including the state Republican Party, executive director Dallas Woodhouse and chairman Robin Hayes.

The agents, who were present at today’s subcommittee meeting, emphasized that they have “no political agenda, no dog in the fight.”

“We will follow where the facts lead us,” Brostrom said.

According to voter registration records, Brostrom and Greene are registered Republicans; Beers is unaffiliated.