Is Gov. Roy Cooper corrupt? Or is he a hero?
Both arguments are being made after Cooper negotiated to have energy companies pay $58 million into a fund associated with a natural gas pipeline that will run through eastern North Carolina. Was Cooper savvy to win millions of dollars to mitigate the pipeline’s impact? Or did he orchestrate an improper quid-pro-quo that gave the energy companies the permit they sought while producing a “slush fund” he could benefit from politically if not financially?
His move appears not as innocent as he suggests and not as sleazy as legislative Republicans and others contend.
Cooper’s administration revealed the fund at the same time it announced that its environmental regulators had approved a key permit the pipeline needed. Cooper said the energy companies were paying into the fund voluntarily and that the fund was created separately from the permit decision.
Companies don’t typically fork over tens of millions of dollars voluntarily. And while there is no proof the permit approval was contingent on the fund, it appears that way to many. At a minimum, the discussions were clearly going on simultaneously.
But perhaps Cooper’s biggest mistake was putting the fund under his personal control. The Memorandum of Understanding creating it says “the funds shall be allocated pursuant to the guidelines and directives set forth in a subsequent executive order” to be issued by Cooper.
That understandably alarmed Republicans. Cooper assured everyone after the fact that he never intended to personally decide where the money would go, and that third-party experts would make those decisions, but that’s not spelled out in the agreement. It should have been. And while at least one intended use of the money – environmental mitigation – is sound, the others – economic development and renewable energy – are broad enough to leave room for pork-barrel spending.
The Constitution says that state funds can be appropriated only by the General Assembly. These looked a lot like state funds, and Cooper could have negotiated the fund but let the legislature appropriate the money for the purposes spelled out in the agreement.
All that said, Republicans have gone way overboard by suggesting corruption. There is no indication the agreement would have directly benefited Cooper in any way. And legislators may hurt the environment in the pipeline’s counties by moving the money from its original purposes to public schools. For all the Cain that Republicans raise, the state is clearly better off with the energy companies paying $58 million to the state than not. Would Republicans have preferred that the state not receive that money?
Cooper should have negotiated the fund in a way that benefited the state but didn’t look so questionable.