January 28, 2019 In The News, Op-Ed, State Oversight

NC House Speaker Moore’s private deals need review

By: Daniel Stevens, The News & Observer, January 26, 2019

Tim Moore, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, has made no bones about his admiration for President Trump.

It seems the speaker also may share Trump’s drive to use his post for his personal financial benefit.

Over the course of the past two years, my organization, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), has investigated Moore’s business dealings, filing numerous open records requests with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The documents we uncovered suggest Moore has tried to use his legislative position to benefit his company.

Following up on our work, reporters uncovered additional instances of potential wrongdoing.

In February 2017, in response to reports that President Trump might select former North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) head Donald van der Vaart to serve in the EPA, CfA sought correspondence between van der Vaart and then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Among the hundreds of pages of documents DEQ produced were two pages showing Moore had attempted to persuade DEQ not to enforce state environmental laws on a property owned by Moore’s company, Southeast Land Holdings.

Moore’s company had purchased a former poultry plant out of bankruptcy for $85,000 and then ignored all warnings about the property’s deteriorated environmental condition.

In August 2014, DEQ notified Moore that two underground storage tanks on the property needed to be permanently closed.

Despite repeated conversations with DEQ, Southeast took no action to remove the tanks. Eventually, a DEQ inspector notified Southeast to expect enforcement action.

Without any written explanation, DEQ reversed itself and granted Southeast a 90-day extension to permanently remove the storage tanks.

After Southeast removed the tanks in mid-August 2015, it determined the tanks had further polluted the area. Again, the company failed to follow DEQ procedures to properly clean up the site, and it similarly failed to submit the required paperwork.

In the wake of Southeast’s delinquent actions, in March 2016, Moore aide and former DEQ administrator Mitch Gillespie intervened to push DEQ to resolve the matter.

When DEQ officials were investigating how to respond to Gillespie’s inquiry, they discovered Southeast not only had failed to file the reports, but also had failed to respond to numerous agency inquiries regarding the matter.

A DEQ employee later wrote that the agency fast tracked the approval process for the company because of “legislative inquiries.” Southeast ultimately sold the property for $550,000.

The documents reveal that Gillespie intervened with DEQ for the benefit of Moore’s company.

Recent news reports indicate this isn’t the only time Moore has used his legislative position for personal enrichment; he’s apparently done the same thing on at least two other occasions.

In addition, looking into Gillespie’s role, reporters discovered that Gillespie, who had worked full-time for the state for just five years, continued to receive a paycheck for eight months after leaving Moore’s payroll, raising a whole new set of questions to which Moore has offered little response.

The citizens of North Carolina deserve a definitive answer as to whether one of the state’s top elected leaders has abused his position for financial gain. That’s why CfA is calling for an investigation. The North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, previously charged with investigating such matters, was recently disbanded.

Now it’s up to the newly re-established State Ethics Commission to take up the matter and hold Moore accountable for any improper conduct.

Daniel Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group in Washington.

Read the op-ed on the News & Observer’s website.