Aide’s in­quiry about plant Moore sold draws scru­tiny

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY DAN KANE AND WILL DO­RAN [email protected]­sob­server.com wdo­[email protected]­sob­server.com

In March 2016, a top aide to House Speaker Tim Moore asked a state Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity of­fi­cial about two un­der­ground stor­age tanks re­moved from a for­mer chicken pro­cess­ing plant in Siler City that was up for sale. One of those tanks had leaked gas.

“Mitch Gille­spie is ask­ing about the sta­tus of the Siler City UST (un­der­ground stor­age tank) is­sue,” Caro­line Daly, DEQ’s leg­isla­tive li­ai­son, wrote in the March 2, 2016, email to the sec­tion chief who over­sees un­der­ground tank reg­u­la­tions. “Do you know what this is about and can give me an up­date to share?”

That trig­gered sev­eral emails within the depart­ment. Within hours, DEQ of­fi­cials re­ported back that the site had the green light for en­try into a state pro­gram that sub­si­dizes the cleanup costs for un­der­ground tanks. Daly then re­layed the de­ci­sion to Gille­spie so he could pass it along to the prop­erty own­ers, who ul­ti­mately re­ceived $22,000 from the state. Among them: his boss, Speaker Moore.

Christina Schroeter, a DEQ hy­dro­ge­ol­o­gist, said in one of the emails that she had pulled for re­view the prop­erty own­ers’ ap­pli­ca­tion for the un­der­ground tank cleanup sub­sidy that week, and was work­ing on a draft ac­cep­tance let­ter. “There are no is­sues in el­i­gi­bil­ity . ... Just let me know if Mr. Gille­spie has any other ques­tions,” she wrote.

Gille­spie’s in­volve­ment in the en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues adds to ques­tions swirling around the two-term House speaker’s pub-

lic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and pri­vate busi­ness. The Wake County dis­trict at­tor­ney has re­quested the State Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion con­duct a non­crim­i­nal in­quiry into Moore’s pri­vate le­gal work for two clients – one who won fa­vor­able state leg­is­la­tion after Moore han­dled a reg­u­la­tory mat­ter, and an­other who hired him after win­ning fa­vor­able leg­is­la­tion.

‘LEG­ISLA­TIVE IN­QUIRIES’

Gille­spie’s in­quiry came two months be­fore Moore and his part­ners in a busi­ness called South­east Land Hold­ings struck an agree­ment to sell the prop­erty to Moun­taire Farms, a ma­jor chicken pro­ces­sor based in Delaware. In a three-year pe­riod, they turned an $85,000 land pur­chase into a $550,000 sale, or roughly six times what they paid for it.

The records in­di­cate South­east needed clo­sure from DEQ on the un­der­ground tank is­sue so Moun­taire could re­de­velop the prop­erty un­der the state’s Brown­fields pro­gram, which al­lows for a less ex­pen­sive cleanup and a sub­stan­tial prop­erty tax break.

The DEQ’s and Gille­spie’s han­dling of the en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues at the chicken plant are now ex­pected to be the ba­sis of a fol­low-up ethics com­plaint by a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., watch­dog group that had first raised ques­tions about DEQ’s han­dling of the chicken plant prop­erty 10 months ago. The Cam­paign for Ac­count­abil­ity said the state ethics board should in­ves­ti­gate whether DEQ had given Moore, by virtue of his role as one of the state’s three most pow­er­ful elected of­fi­cials, and the other prop­erty own­ers spe­cial treat­ment as it over­saw their cleanup of the plant. After The News & Ob­server’s re­port was posted Tues­day, Moore re­leased a let­ter from the ethics board that found no un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior be­tween Moore and DEQ staff in that ear­lier in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Gille­spie’s in­volve­ment turned up in a se­ries of emails re­leased to the watch­dog group in late Novem­ber. The News & Ob­server ob­tained them from DEQ three weeks later.

Daniel Stevens, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for Cam­paign for Ac­count­abil­ity, said the newly re­leased DEQ emails are the ba­sis for an amended or ad­di­tional ethics com­plaint his group ex­pects to file within days.

“There’s cer­tainly some ques­tions about whether DEQ acted ap­pro­pri­ately in how they han­dled this case, but there are also some real ques­tions about whether Mr. Gille­spie acted ap­pro­pri­ately in in­ter­ven­ing with DEQ.”

One of the emails, writ­ten by an­other DEQ hy­dro­ge­ol­o­gist four months after the sale closed, points to “leg­isla­tive in­quiries” that played a role in DEQ’s ap­proval for the Brown­fields pro­gram. But the hy­dro­ge­ol­o­gist, Clark Wip­field, said South­east’s con­trac­tor had not fol­lowed DEQ in­struc­tions for re­port­ing cleanup ef­forts.

He said in the email dated Jan. 10, 2017, that he had re­quested the con­trac­tor pro­vide “risk-based sam­ples” for re­view. In­stead, the con­trac­tor sent a “lim­ited site as­sess­ment” re­port that ex­am­ined en­vi­ron­men­tal risks.

“I don’t know why they didn’t col­lect risk-based sam­ples or why they sub­mit­ted the (lim­ited site as­sess­ment) im­me­di­ately,” Wip­field wrote. “But then, leg­isla­tive in­quiries were com­ing in be­cause they thought (the un­der­ground stor­age tank pro­gram) was hold­ing up the process into the Brown­fields pro­gram.”

As a re­sult, he wrote, the site was “put on the fast” track for Brown­fields ac­cep­tance.

State records show that Moun­taire in July 2016, or four months after Gille­spie’s in­quiry, re­quested the site be ac­cepted into the state’s Brown­fields pro­gram. That pro­gram shields buy­ers from much of the po­ten­tial li­a­bil­ity in re­de­vel­op­ing con­tam­i­nated sites with­out hav­ing to per­form a to­tal cleanup. They have to com­mit to clean­ing up and con­tain­ing any re­main­ing pol­lu­tion to the de­gree that it can’t leave the site or harm any­one work­ing there. The site has since been ac­cepted into the pro­gram.

The state also of­fers sub­stan­tial prop­erty tax breaks to en­tice busi­nesses to re­de­velop con­tam­i­nated sites un­der the Brown­fields pro­gram.

BUY­ING AND SELL­ING THE CHICKEN PLANT

South­east Land Hold­ings, mean­while, re­ceived $22,414.29 from the state Un­der­ground Stor­age Tank trust fund, which cov­ered slightly more than half of the $42,414.29 cost of re­mov­ing the tanks and roughly 400 tons of gaso­line-con­tam­i­nated soil, state records show. The tanks stored gaso­line and diesel.

After the House elected Moore speaker in early 2015, he brought on Gille­spie as a se­nior pol­icy ad­viser for en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. Gille­spie is a for­mer Repub­li­can state law­maker from McDow­ell County who had served as an as­sis­tant DEQ sec­re­tary un­der Gov. Pat McCrory, only to later be de­moted to a po­si­tion han­dling en­vi­ron­men­tal mat­ters in the western part of the state. He stayed in that po­si­tion for one week be­fore join­ing Moore’s staff.

Gille­spie has since left the speaker’s staff, and did not re­spond to mes­sages to his home and cell­phone. Moore, a Cleve­land County Repub­li­can, did not re­spond to mes­sages to his cell­phone or his leg­isla­tive email. Moore has hired for­mer Wake County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Colon Wil­loughby to rep­re­sent him on the un­re­lated SBI in­quiry over his pri­vate le­gal work. An ef­fort to reach Moore through Wil­loughby was also un­suc­cess­ful.

A day after the story was pub­lished on­line Tues­day, Moore said he didn’t know if Gille­spie had got­ten in­volved.

“I can’t tell you about whether a call was made or not,” he said. “I didn’t know any­thing about it un­til I read the ar­ti­cle.”

Moore has said in prior in­ter­views that he keeps his pri­vate busi­ness sep­a­rate from his pub­lic du­ties. In March he called Cam­paign for Ac­count­abil­ity’s ini­tial com­plaint a “mer­it­less elec­tion-year po­lit­i­cal ploy.”

In an in­ter­view last Oc­to­ber, Moore said he wasn’t in­volved in South­east’s pur­chase of the chicken plant prop­erty, had no role in ob­tain­ing pub­lic money to help with Moun­taire’s pur­chase of the plant and did not make money from the sale.

“That profit rolled into the com­pany, and some of the other own­ers had made some out­stand­ing loans to the com­pany and they were be­ing paid for those,” he said. “But I ac­tu­ally did not make any in­come. I’m glad to see that it’s sold and it’s pro­duc­tive prop­erty now.”

He said as the com­pany’s at­tor­ney he han­dled the re­moval of the un­der­ground tanks. He said he and the other own­ers weren’t aware of them when they pur­chased the prop­erty.

It took some time to re­move them, Moore said, be­cause they didn’t know ex­actly where the tanks were. Once they found them, they had to move power lines to get at them.

What do you think is the most im­por­tant is­sue fac­ing the North Carolina leg­is­la­ture in 2019? Tell Cu­ri­ousNC.

Pre­vi­ously re­ported DEQ email cor­re­spon­dence showed Moore’s com­pany get­ting fee waivers and dead­line ex­ten­sions re­lated to its cleanup of the two un­der­ground stor­age tanks at the plant.

Moore’s com­pany reg­is­tered the tanks sev­eral months late, which came with a $5,880 late fee. DEQ of­fi­cials waived that fee, and gave Moore’s com­pany an­other month to deal with the cleanup.

That one-month ex­ten­sion ended Nov. 2, 2014, but months later on April 24, 2015, emails from en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors said Moore’s com­pany still hadn’t sub­mit­ted any doc­u­men­ta­tion prov­ing it was mov­ing for­ward with the cleanup.

Moore later got back in touch with DEQ , email records show, and told an in­spec­tor his com­pany planned to sell the prop­erty, and the buyer would take care of the prob­lem. Other emails show the in­spec­tor wrote that she told Moore his plan “was not con­sid­ered a proper cor­rec­tive ac­tion” and so it would be “un­likely” to get an­other ex­ten­sion and avoid be­ing fined.

Moore still asked for an ex­ten­sion and got it two days later.

When The N&O re­ported on those is­sues last March, a DEQ spokesman con­firmed that the email records were le­git­i­mate but de­clined to an­swer other ques­tions or make any state­ments about the is­sue, stat­ing that “we have no ad­di­tional com­ment.”

STATE EM­PLOY­EES AND ‘PUB­LIC PUR­POSE’

State ethics laws pro­hibit law­mak­ers from us­ing their po­si­tions to ben­e­fit their per­sonal in­ter­ests.

The cor­re­spon­dence does not show Moore di­rected Gille­spie to in­quire about the site. It does show DEQ of­fi­cials knew Moore was seek­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­proval and that Gille­spie worked for him.

From 2013 to the end of 2016, Repub­li­cans con­trolled the leg­is­la­ture and the gover­nor’s of­fice. Dur­ing that time they pushed for a more busi­ness-friendly depart­ment by cut­ting en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. They also cut DEQ staff.

There is no state law that specif­i­cally ad­dresses state em­ploy­ees work­ing on their bosses’ pri­vate in­ter­ests, but the state con­sti­tu­tion’s “pub­lic pur­pose” clause re­quires that pub­lic funds be ex­pended for a pub­lic pur­pose, and that in­cludes em­ployee salaries. Over the years, law­mak­ers have in­ter­preted that clause to mean that leg­isla­tive staff can’t work for their bosses’ re-elec­tion cam­paigns on state time or with state re­sources.

“The same con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ple would hold if a leg­isla­tive em­ployee was work­ing on be­half of a leg­is­la­tor’s pri­vate busi­ness in­ter­ests while us­ing state re­sources and/or on state time,” Norma Hous­ton, a lec­turer in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Gov­ern­ment and a for­mer chief of staff to re­tired Se­nate leader Marc Bas­night, said in an email. She was not ad­dress­ing the specifics of Gille­spie’s ac­tions.

State ethics of­fi­cials had been look­ing at Moore’s in­ter­ac­tions with DEQ of­fi­cials over the chicken pro­cess­ing prop­erty since March, when the Cam­paign for Ac­count­abil­ity filed its com­plaint. The let­ter Moore re­leased Wed­nes­day showed the board found much of the con­cern raised in DEQ emails had to do with Moore’s lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the ef­forts South­east made to clean up the site.

The let­ter, dated Dec. 28, made no men­tion of Gille­spie’s ac­tions, which didn’t sur­face pub­licly un­til late Novem­ber. Pat Gan­non, a spokesman for the ethics board, said staff could not an­swer whether the board knew about Gille­spie’s in­volve­ment. State law re­quires the board to keep com­plaint in­ves­ti­ga­tions se­cret.

The watch­dog group had also raised ques­tions about state grants awarded to a startup that ini­tially sought to pur­chase the prop­erty and later to Siler City for sewer im­prove­ments that Moun­taire needed at the site. The ethics board wrote in a let­ter is­sued to the watch­dog group, dated May 24, that the board found no ev­i­dence of im­pro­pri­ety with those grants, but said it was con­tin­u­ing to look into DEQ’s han­dling of the en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

DEQ records show that two months be­fore Moun­taire bought the prop­erty from South­east, Moun­taire filed an ap­pli­ca­tion to win a Brown­fields des­ig­na­tion. Wip­field said in the email that the Brown­fields pro­gram was the “best fit” to clean up the ground­wa­ter and soil on what he had pre­vi­ously de­ter­mined was a “low risk” site.

PLANT OPEN­ING SOON

DEQ spokes­peo­ple pro­vided records and tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion but have yet to com­ment pub­licly on the larger is­sue of whether the com­pany may have re­ceived any spe­cial treat­ment. Sev­eral of the staffers and man­agers in­volved in the de­ci­sion­mak­ing process back then, who were con­tacted by The News & Ob­server last week, did not re­spond, said they had noth­ing to add or de­clined to com­ment.

Wip­field and Vance Jack­son, who was the head of the UST Trust Fund Branch at the time and was in­volved in the email thread about the plant, didn’t re­spond to email re­quests.

Schroeter said in an email that she had since moved to an­other divi­sion within DEQ and no longer had ac­cess to a data­base needed to an­swer ques­tions about the site.

Daly said in an email that she could not re­call de­tails of her in­ter­ac­tions re­lated to the chicken plant. She later de­clined com­ment when reached by phone.

Daly served a short stint as leg­isla­tive li­ai­son in DEQ at the time she took Gille­spie’s re­quest. She had pre­vi­ously worked as an in­tern and re­search as­sis­tant for Moore’s pre­de­ces­sor, Thom Til­lis, a Repub­li­can who is now a U.S. se­na­tor. She left the ex­ec­u­tive branch shortly after Demo­crat Roy Cooper was elected gover­nor, and now works as a pol­icy ad­viser to House Speaker Pro Tem Sarah Stevens, a Mt. Airy Repub­li­can.

Cather­ine Bas­sett, Moun­taire’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, said the South­east prop­erty was one of five parcels Moun­taire pur­chased to build the $170 mil­lion pro­cess­ing plant in Siler City.

“Ne­go­ti­a­tions took place through a Re­al­tor, not di­rectly with the prop­erty own­ers,” she said in an emailed state­ment. “The com­pany was un­aware that the Speaker of the House was in­volved in one of the prop­er­ties. Moun­taire worked di­rectly with North Carolina’s Brown­fields Pro­gram on each par­cel.”

She said the re­de­vel­op­ment will ul­ti­mately cre­ate roughly 1,100 jobs in Chatham County and mil­lions of dol­lars in eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Moun­taire ex­pects to open the plant later this month.

This not the first time Gille­spie, the for­mer ad­viser to Moore, has faced ques­tions over his work for the speaker. In 2016, The News & Ob­server re­ported that he and Edgar Starnes, a leg­isla­tive li­ai­son to the state trea­surer, had re­placed a range hood and took down two bath­room mir­rors as Moore was fix­ing up his Raleigh condo.

Gille­spie de­nied do­ing the work to the N&O, but Moore later paid Gille­spie and Starnes, who also is a for­mer Repub­li­can law­maker, $67 each for their la­bor. Starnes and Moore said Gille­spie and Starnes did the work be­cause they are friends with the speaker.

‘‘

I CAN’T TELL YOU ABOUT WHETHER A CALL WAS MADE OR NOT. I DIDN’T KNOW ANY­THING ABOUT IT UN­TIL I READ THE AR­TI­CLE.

House Speaker Tim Moore

Mitch Gille­spie

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