Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline investigation: Much ado about … something?

The General Assembly’s hired investigators. (Photo: WRAL livestream)

There are too many reasons to mention why we should be skeptical of the N.C. General Assembly’s keen interest in Gov. Roy Cooper’s handling of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline permitting.

Republican lawmakers went full Barnum & Bailey last year when they attempted to extract pipeline details from Lee Lilley, Cooper’s newly-named director of legislative affairs, during a budget committee meeting. Indeed, legislators in the GOP caucus had, clearly, been watching too many episodes of Perry Mason.

And be sure that our party-obsessed Republican leadership considered political affiliation when they hired Wilmington-based Eagle Intel last year to conduct the probe at a cost of about $83,000 in public money. As Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg wrote last December, two are registered Republicans. The third is unaffiliated.

That said, there are key questions asked here about how controversial — and yes, highly political — projects are permitted. We should be asking how such projects are arrived at in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Are political and economic concerns relevant in such permits? If so, how are they measured against the pressing environmental concerns that should be paramount to the officials in Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality?

According to the General Assembly’s investigators, based on communications between Duke Energy officials, “it would be reasonable to conclude that Governor Cooper improperly used the authority and influence of his Office” to coerce the pipeline’s owners into a $57.8 million mitigation fund, although they do not offer any conclusive evidence of that nature.

Duke Energy denies it, and so does the governor’s office. And here’s this important kernel from Sorg’s story this morning:

As Policy Watch reported this year, the governor’s office and DEQ did coordinate on the timing of their respective announcements, based on communication in public records. But there is no proof in the public record that the permit approval hinged on the fund.

It is a striking coincidence that Republicans in Raleigh are searching desperately for evidence of “quid pro quo” but their counterparts in Washington, D.C., haven’t a passing interest in uncovering such a thing.

Later in their conclusions, the investigators wrote that “the information suggests that criminal violations may have occurred.” But after tossing that bombshell, they acknowledged Wednesday they had not reviewed state and federal statutes because their investigation was convened to consider civil matters.

Gov. Roy Cooper

According to WRAL, they arrived at that conclusion “based on the inconsistencies they found in people’s statements and actions, which in their experience as federal agents suggests wrongdoing.”

All due respect to their experience, but such a statement seems ill-conceived or partisan in intent unless there is something to back up that assertion.

It is the sort of thing that, without evidence, seems engineered to be a pull-quote in a campaign ad because it is rendered in an “official” report.

Are we really to proceed with such a Molotov cocktail of a conclusion based on what can be accurately described as a hunch?

That, frankly, will not do.

This whole affair is much ado about something. But it is stunning how little we can conclude about that “something” after this 82-page report.

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