Opinion

Gov. Cooper and a top NC Democrat are trying to thwart a GOP investigation. They should stop.

Raleigh News & Observer

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and at least one N.C. Democrat are engaging in some eyebrow-raising behavior regarding an investigation into Cooper’s handling of Atlantic Coast Pipeline permits. It’s a bad look for the governor, and voters should be troubled whenever a public official attempts to undermine legitimate questioning.

Some background: Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality granted permits in 2018 for the controversial natural gas pipeline to run through eastern North Carolina. At the same time, his office announced that an energy consortium developing the pipeline would contribute $57.8 million for environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy. It was an unusual arrangement that didn’t include many specifics about where the money — which Cooper initially controlled — would go.

Republican lawmakers hired investigators to look into whether the energy consortium was pushed into paying the millions in exchange for permitting. Cooper initially shielded his employees from testifying but has agreed to let his staff do so in a public hearing early next month. Now, however, the governor’s office may be trying to undermine those interviews in advance.

Earlier this month, Cooper’s office filed a startling public records request for investigation records — including transcripts and recordings of interviews conducted in the probe, according to N.C. Insider. If that request is granted, the subject of an investigation could get to see the product of that investigation before he or his staff testify. That’s disturbing.

This week, Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson targeted both the hearing and the legitimacy of the subcommittee created to investigate the pipeline controversy. In a letter Wednesday to Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, Jackson said private investigators are not allowed by statute to directly ask questions of witnesses in hearings. More importantly, and just days before the hearing, he argued that the General Assembly didn’t give authority to Berger and Moore to create the subcommittee, and that it should be disbanded.

N.C. statute does allow investigators to ask questions of witnesses, so long as those questions are made through a committee chair who then can direct witnesses to answer. As for Jackson’s call to disband the subcommittee: Berger’s office argues that state law doesn’t bar him and Moore from creating the pipeline subcommittee. “Commissions and committees of the General Assembly aren’t limited to taking only actions that are specifically enumerated by statute in carrying out their responsibilities,” Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said in a statement Thursday.

Certainly, there’s lots of politicking going on here. Jackson shared his letter Wednesday with Cooper’s staff and campaign advisor, among others. Republicans, for their part, clearly have something to gain from the pipeline investigation. But politics aside, the hiring of a private firm to investigate the governor’s office, while uncommon, is not forbidden by statute. The investigators have substantial experience as federal law enforcement agents and do not appear to be partisan.

Also, Republicans have promised that the investigators’ report will be made public, and that Democratic and Republican lawmakers will be able to ask questions about it.

We understand why Cooper doesn’t much trust the Senate leader and House speaker, who have tried to dilute the governor’s power before and since he took office. But there are legitimate questions surrounding the governor, the pipeline permitting and the $57.8 million fund. The fact that the queries might be politically beneficial to Republicans is irrelevant to whether they should be asked. It’s time for the governor’s office to answer those questions, not undermine them.

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