Duke Energy sharply increased its contributions to the Republican Governors Association, which backed Gov. Pat McCrory’s 2012 campaign, as coal ash problems ensnarled the company last year.
McCrory, a former Duke executive and Charlotte mayor, is expected to seek a second term as governor in 2016.
A Duke power plant in Eden spilled up to 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River in February 2014. Four months later, as state legislators debated ash policy, Duke gave the governor’s association $275,000.
Three more donations followed in 2014 for a total of $3.05 million – more than 10 times Duke’s previous annual high total to the group.
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The campaign watchdog group Democracy North Carolina reported the contributions, which the Observer verified. The group said Duke was the association’s top corporate donor in 2014.
“It puts McCrory in a compromising position and raises legitimate questions, when a corporation he’s regulating gives this much money to a financial backer, of how objective he can be,” said executive director Bob Hall.
Duke says its gives to both political parties to advocate for its customers and shareholders. It can’t dictate how the RGA uses its contributions, the company said.
Duke said contributions to the association increased as three Republican governors in its territory, which grew to six states in a 2012 merger with Progress Energy, ran for reelection in 2014. Five of the six legislatures are controlled by Republican majorities.
“This had nothing to do with anything about Dan River,” spokesman Tom Williams said. “We don’t supply funds on any individual issues. We typically mirror the nature of our service territories, which favor incumbents.”
Asked if Duke’s donations influenced McCrory, chief spokesman Josh Ellis said by e-mail that “I’m not going to dignify that question with a response.”
The governor was squarely in the middle of North Carolina’s debate over coal ash last year.
Lawmakers worked from McCrory’s template in adopting first-of-its-kind legislation that gave Duke until 2029 to close its 32 ash ponds in the state. Environmental advocates complained that the bill included loopholes that benefited Duke and did too little to protect water supplies.
When legislators wavered late in their session, McCrory ordered state regulators to begin testing groundwater near Duke’s ash ponds and to take steps toward draining high-risk ponds.
The legislation became law in September without the governor’s signature. McCrory objected on constitutional grounds to its creation of a new Coal Ash Management Commission.
His administration claimed credit for filing state lawsuits against Duke before the Dan River spill, although those came after pressure from environmental groups. Last month, regulators slapped Duke with a state-record $25 million fine for contaminating groundwater. Duke has appealed the fine.
McCrory sold his Duke stock in April 2014 after news accounts of protests urging the governor to sever ties to the company. He later acknowledged mistakenly misstating the timing of the sales on ethics forms.
The Republican Governors Association gave $5 million in 2012 to help get McCrory elected, Democracy North Carolina reported.
As a so-called 527 political organization, the association can receive and spend unlimited amounts to promote the election of candidates without directly coordinating with them.
Reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service show Duke gave the association $90,000 to $176,000 a year between 2008 and 2012. Subsidiary Progress Energy gave $275,000 in 2013.
Duke gave $200,000 to the Democratic Governors Association in 2012 and $200,000 in 2014, Democracy North Carolina said.
Duke’s political action committee heavily favored Republicans in the 2013-14 state election cycle, Democracy North Carolina said. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislature.
Of $431,000 in contributions to legislative and party committees, about $360,000 went to the GOP.