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Speaker’s aide buzzed DEQ staffers about boss’ chicken plant deal

January 11th, 2019

— A senior aide to House Speaker Tim Moore reached out to at least two state Department of Environmental Quality staffers about department actions that impacted a private land deal the speaker was involved with in 2016.

Moore, R-Cleveland, denied knowledge of the conversations, saying that if now former senior policy adviser Mitch Gillespie intervened, he didn’t know about it.

Gillespie was a state legislator and then an assistant secretary at DEQ before joining Moore’s office. He reached out twice to Vance Johnson, who was then head of a DEQ trust fund that reimburses people for costs associated with removing underground fuel storage tanks, Johnson said Thursday.

Johnson characterized both calls as status checks regarding tanks in the ground at a closed poultry plant the speaker and his partners were selling, with no political pressure applied.

An email sent by DEQ legislative liaison Caroline Daly in March 2016 indicates that Gillespie also asked her about the tanks. She asked a DEQ section chief for an update to pass back to Gillespie, triggering a number of emails on the project that were later released through the state’s open records law and first reported earlier this week by The News Observer.

Gillespie, who has left the speaker’s office but sits as a House appointee on the state Environmental Management Commission, declined to comment Thursday morning, calling the story “fake news.” He refused to elaborate, even though he was offered a chance to lay out whatever problems he had with the newspaper’s coverage.

WRAL News spoke later in the day with Johnson.

The plant eventually got a $22,000 reimbursement for tank removal costs, less than the $42,000 requested, Johnson said. It also entered the state’s brownfields program, which offers tax incentives and other benefits for developers of properties with environmental issues.

Michael Scott, deputy director for DEQ’s brownfields project at the time, said he couldn’t recall speaking directly to Gillespie about the project and that no one on his staff reported feeling pressured.

Moore’s involvement in the chicken plant deal has been questioned for some time. He and partners bought the former Townsend poultry plant in Siler City out of bankruptcy for $85,000 in 2013 through a company called Southeast Land Holdings. They sold it to Mountaire Farms in 2016 for $550,000.

In between, Moore worked with DEQ over environmental clean-up issues, particularly on fuel tanks buried on the property.

The plant had closed in 2011, laying off more than 1,000 people. Mountaire plans to reopen it this year, employing more than 1,000 people. The project qualified for millions in government incentives. Mountaire Chief Executive Ronald Cameron, of Arkansas, is a significant Republican donor in North Carolina, and the company has a number of locations here.

An ethics complaint was filed last year over Moore’s involvement in the Siler City deal, but it was dismissed by the State Board of Elections last month, shortly before the board was disbanded by a court order in an unrelated lawsuit. Moore provided reporters Wednesday with a copy of that dismissal, which otherwise could have remained confidential.

The complaint didn’t mention Gillespie’s involvement. Daniel Stevens, who filed the complaint on behalf of the Campaign for Accountability in Washington, D.C., said Thursday that he didn’t know about it at the time and that he plans to file a follow-up complaint.

The dismissal letter indicates that a panel of two ethics board members met Dec. 18, and both were satisfied by DEQ staffers’ explanations for why fines were waived and the project received an extension for dealing with the storage tanks.

The letter states that the department’s actions were “not outside the norm of the department’s practice” and that DEQ staff told investigators that Moore didn’t get the extension because he was a legislator.

By rule, the names of those panel members are secret, but the same rules require that the panel members can’t be from the same political party. Before it disbanded, the board was made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and one unaffiliated member appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, who is a Democrat.

“I can’t tell you about whether a call was made (by Gillespie) or not,” Moore told reporters Wednesday, the first day of the new legislative session. “I didn’t know anything about it until I read the article. But what I can tell you is that … the state board of ethics has dismissed the complaint and found that I didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m very pleased with that.”

The News Observer reported that Moore did not respond to repeated interview requests before the newspaper published its story.

At least one email indicates that Gillespie was copied on a DEQ dispatch to Moore about the plant in 2014, when Gillespie was still with the department. But given Moore’s denial, it’s unclear how Gillespie knew to reach out about the project in 2016. Johnson and others at DEQ said they had no idea.

“It raises a lot of questions about why he was calling,” Stevens said. “It’s certainly inappropriate.”

Stevens’ group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and a number of its staffers have backgrounds in research or legal work for left-leaning groups. One of the group’s board members has a background in LGBT advocacy, and another was on former President Barack Obama’s re-election team.

Johnson said Thursday that Gillespie made “no representation that he was calling for the speaker” and he “didn’t attempt to apply any pressure for any special consideration.”

Three other DEQ employees said much the same thing when WRAL News asked in March 2018 about the extension Moore’s company had received to deal with the underground tanks: that they didn’t feel pressured.

Others were more circumspect, with the inspector on the case saying she only vaguely remembered it and, when asked if she felt pressured, replying that she would have to review her files. Attempts to reach her Thursday were not successful.

DEQ’s official comment in March was a no comment, beyond pointing to emails released through the open records act. Among other things, that record includes emails from then-DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder saying the inspector should proceed as she would in any other case.

Reeder is now an adviser for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. The issue was eventually forwarded all the way up to the department’s secretary at the time, Donald Van der Vaart.

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