CIB 8/22/2016: Wellwatergate 2016

The murky tide of Wellwatergate continues to lap at the Governor’s door. This week in CIB:

Executive Watch: Wellwatergate Case Parties Subpoena McCrory Aides

After weeks of self-generated negative public scrutiny of the McCrory Administration’s honesty on the matter of toxic well water near Duke Energy coal ash pits, the Governor might be excused for asking a simple question: Can it get any worse? Unfortunately for him, the answer appears to be yes.

Last week came this latest news: Top aides of Gov. Pat McCrory may be required to testify in their own depositions in the case against Duke Energy over its handling of coal ash pits. The aides in question are McCrory chief of staff Thomas Stith and communications director Josh Ellis.

Representing citizen groups in the case, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sent notices of deposition to Stith and Ellis. Subject to the determination of the judge hearing the case, they could be compelled to respond to questions under oath in this matter as soon as September 1 and 2. A third administration public voice, Kendra Gerlach of the Department of Health and Human Services, may also be deposed.

Their testimony arguably became relevant after parts of State Toxicologist Kenneth Rudo’s deposition in the case became public. Responding to attorneys’ questions, Rudo said that he had been called into the governor’s office in March 2015 to explain why he could not sign off on a letter to the users of toxin-contaminated wells near Duke coal ash pits, a letter downplaying the risks involved in using the water. As part of his account, Rudo said that although Gov. McCrory wasn’t there in person, he called Ellis during the meeting. Gerlach was the other individual physically present in the office with Ellis and Rudo during the meeting.

Shortly after that account became public, Stith hosted a rare late-evening press call in which he accused Rudo of lying under oath in his testimony. Since that time, however, neither Stith nor Ellis have answered questions regarding the specifics of that claim, including whether Ellis and McCrory actually spoke by phone during the meeting.

As Representative Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said last week, “[I]t’s hard to imagine that [Rudo] is not telling the truth. He’s a well-respected scientist, not a politician. At the very least, the whole episode raises more questions about the relationship between the McCrory Administration and Duke Energy where Gov. McCrory worked for 28 years and how that relationship influences important decisions about environmental policy and the safety of drinking water. Why was [McCrory’s] Communications Director Josh Ellis questioning the state toxicologist about why he wanted to warn people about the dangers in their water? That is the toxicologist’s job. It’s supposed to be anyway.”

The issue of McCrory’s direct involvement in his administration’s attempt to mislead users of contaminated well water is a politically explosive one. McCrory is in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial re-election campaign, in which his opponent (NC Attorney General Roy Cooper) has criticized his handling of environmental and public health matters as governor. Confirming the degree to which McCrory personally backed dangerous misinformation to well water users will likely reinforce that line of attack.
In our view at NCLCV, it certainly calls into starker relief McCrory’s unsuitability for the responsibility of overseeing the enforcement of North Carolina’s laws and programs to protect public health from such threats.

Campaign Watch: Voter Suppression Efforts Renewed

Despite the recent federal appeals court decision throwing out new restrictions on voting in North Carolina, some in our state continue to fight against restoring popular tools which make it easier for voters to cast their ballots.

Late last month, the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees cases from North Carolina, ruled that key provisions in the 2013 package of voting changes approved by the state legislature violate the federal Voting Rights Act. In particular, the Court threw out the elimination of same-day registration and voting during the early voting period, and “out-of-precinct” voting. It also disapproved reductions in the early voting period and the requirement that voters show certain limited kinds of photo identification in order to vote.

The Court said that these changes disproportionately impacted minority voters, and in fact that evidence in the case record showed that the changes were targeted “with almost surgical precision” to do just that. In its ruling, the Court directed that an injunction be issued requiring the state of North Carolina to operate under the older rules for this year’s general election.

NC’s Attorney General Roy Cooper declined to appeal the Appeals Court’s ruling to the US Supreme Court. However, Gov. Pat McCrory and state Republican legislative leaders, through a private law firm, are seeking an appeal and have asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the new voting restrictions for this fall’s elections.
Citizen advocates for expanding public participation in the election process, including NCLCV, have characterized the 2013 state law as a “voter suppression” package. These advocates have cheered the Appeals Court’s decision to block those changes.

Just last week, however, new efforts to thwart the Court’s ruling emerged, during the county-by-county process of finalizing polling places and hours for October and November. Those plans, including early voting hours and locations, are set by county boards of elections (subject to review by the statewide board of elections).
North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse emailed Republican members of county boards of elections on August 14, urging them to restrict early voting “through party line changes” to county early voting plans. (Under state law, the party controlling the governor’s office gets to name two of three appointees to each county’s board of elections, and three of five to the statewide board of elections.) Woodhouse encouraged limiting the first week of early voting to a single site per county, and not approving either Sunday voting times or voting sites on college campuses.

County boards responded in different fashions. Some counties (e.g., Forsyth and Guilford) had already enacted their early voting plans and made no further changes last week. In both of those counties, strong public support for expanded sites and hours appeared to influence actions by the local boards, which adopted compromise plans unanimously supported by their members.

However, the Mecklenburg County board last week voted on a 2-1 party-line majority to significantly cut early voting hours from the plan used in 2012. (The Mecklenburg County board chair asserted that she had not seen the Woodhouse email.) In Wake County, the county board rejected its chair’s effort to cut early voting hours, when the other Republican member joined with the board’s sole Democrat to oppose the cutbacks.

Important lessons can be applied from these results. First, public input by citizens can make a difference, even across party lines, in the support of improving public access to voting rights. Second, some political interests are dedicated to fighting against stronger voting rights, and they cannot safely be ignored. The strength of our democratic system is at stake—and who we elect matters, to the environment as well as to other critical concerns.

Legislative Watch: Author of Anti-Environment Legislation Reported as Possible Head of New Environmental Research Center

As we reported last week, an originally little-noticed provision buried in this year’s state budget bill allocated up to $13 million over the next four years to set up and operate the “North Carolina Policy Collaboratory,” a policy research center to examine the “environmental and economic components” of natural resource management, regulation, and technologies.

Since then, word has emerged that the potentially powerful post of directing this new “Collaboratory” could go to Jeffrey Warren, a former petroleum company geologist who is the science and energy advisor to NC Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Warren’s record in that position is raising red flags of concern regarding his possible influence on the new center. As Berger’s advisor, he has helped to formulate attacks on North Carolina’s clean energy strategies, such as the “Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard” that has greatly boosted solar energy development. NC Representative Pricey Harrison last week said, “I can’t think of an individual who’s had more of an impact on the environment in a negative way than Jeffrey Warren.”

Warren’s legislative efforts also include coal ash management legislation that pre-empted local authority to regulate fracking and other pollution, as well as bills that handcuff state pollution control rules to weak federal minimums, promote off-shore drilling, weaken laws to protect ocean beaches and barrier islands, and ignore the facts of sea-level rise.
If the new state regulatory ‘think tank’’ spends its time and resources on similar attempts to support weakening or discrediting critical environmental protection strategies like riparian buffers and nutrient pollution controls, it will be worse than a waste of taxpayer millions. It would become an active barrier to progress in the protection of public health and the environment.

How the center is directed will likely decide its direction. Unfortunately, this reported possible director does not reassure us on that score.

That’s our report for this week.

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