The McCrory Administration is on shaky ground these days. Its disingenuousness and cronyism are catching up to it as three recent news stories make clear.
Sunday, a front page story in the New York Times in the wake of the disastrous coal ash spill into the Dan River detailed how ideology has trumped everything at McCrory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. And that’s not an editorial assertion. It’s the inescapable conclusion based on interviews with current and former employees.
The report begins with details of a meeting last summer at which supervisors were reminded that the Republican General Assembly had cut their budget deeply and would cut it again if they didn’t start issuing environmental permits faster to companies who sought them.
Regulators are now paralyzed, caught between enforcing the rules designed to protect the environment and bowing to the political ideology of the folks Gov. McCrory appointed to lead the agency, Sec. John Skvarla—who wonders if oil is a renewable resource—and Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie, a former member of the state House who had a bull’s-eye in the window of his legislative office that framed the building where DENR is housed.
Now the bull’s-eye is inside the environmental agency and still aimed squarely at people insisting on enforcing the laws to keep our air and water clean. The New York Times story quotes former DENR employees saying that the regulators are terrified of doing their jobs and speak to each other in hushed tones in the hallways, worrying about offending their superiors.
Skvarla told the Times he was “speechless” to hear about it all. That means he either has no clue about what the people who work directly for him are doing or he is being disingenuous about the culture of fear and intimidation at the department that he oversees.
The latter is far more likely, judging by the comments of Skvarla’s boss Gov. Pat McCrory in another Sunday story, this one in the Greensboro News & Record. It was billed as McCrory’s first in-depth interview about his 28 years at Duke Energy, though readers didn’t learn much new information about McCrory’s tenure at the company.
He spent most of his years at Duke a trainer and recruiter and the company supported him during his 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, none of which is exactly breaking news. The story didn’t mention the more than a million dollars Duke spent helping get McCrory elected governor or all the former Duke officials he appointed to key posts in his administration.
But it at least did raise the question of whether McCrory will allow his close ties to the company to influence how he responds to the Dan River coal ash spill at a Duke power plant and the leaking of the other 31 coal ash ponds the company maintains.
McCrory at first seemed clear, and then set a new bar for disingenuousness, telling the News & Record reporter “I can separate. I can clearly separate. I’m the first governor to support a lawsuit against Duke Energy.”
That lawsuit was filed by McCrory’s administration to override suits by environmental groups that sought to force Duke to clean up the leaking coal ash ponds and move the toxic waste to lined landfills where it would be far less likely to leak into the groundwater.
Then the McCrory Administration reached a settlement with Duke that included a small fine but required them to do nothing to address the leaking ash ponds.
That’s the lawsuit McCrory is citing to show his independence from the company, one that essentially protected the company’s interests by halting suits by environmentalists.
And finally, there’s the weekend story by the Associated Press about the tenure of Joe Hauck at McCrory’s embattled Department of Health and Human Services.
Hauck, on leave from the company owned by the husband of DHHS Secretary of Aldona Wos, was hired as a consultant under a personal services contract that eventually paid him $310,000 for 11 months on the job.
It’s not exactly clear what Hauck did at DHHS. The AP story notes that department officials responded to a public records request about Hauck’s work with two short memos and a few spreadsheets of proposed budget cuts.
Remarkably, not one email was included in the records. Either Hauck never communicated by email in his job or department officials are intentionally hiding public records in violation of the law.
And that’s not the most troubling part of the story. DHHS spokesman Kevin Howell told AP that the documents turned over were “the direct result of Hauck’s leadership…” Leadership indeed.
Hauck of course didn’t respond to a request for a comment. No reason to be accountable now with $310,000 of taxpayer money as he presumably heads back to work with Sec. Wos’ husband, a major donor to McCrory’s campaign.
Quite a neat little bow. He leaves behind a department still under fire for a series of questionable hires of former campaign workers and mismanagement of key programs that deliver food stamps and payments to doctors and other medical providers.
The public may not be paying attention to all the details of the coal ash story or who filed which lawsuit. They may not have considered the slim file of accomplishments of a well-connected political appointee who was paid $310,000 of public money for less than a year’s work.
But they know something’s up in Raleigh these days. The latest Elon University Poll finds McCrory’s approval rating mired in the mid 30s — noticeably lower than President Obama’s approval and he is being attacked in ads every day by folks trying to keep Senator Kay Hagan from winning re-election.
People who supported McCrory two years ago didn’t vote for cronyism and slippery claims about who is to blame for the problems in North Carolina, from food stamp delays to leaking coal ash — but that’s exactly they are getting.
Fitzsimon is the executive director of NC Policy Watch. For more information, visit www.ncpolicywatch.com.