North Carolina's embattled Gov. Pat McCrory has been criticized for his close relationship with the energy lobby, especially the company where he worked for 29 years, Duke Energy.
A recent Republican fundraising event in North Carolina featuring McCrory and hosted by an energy lobbyist has renewed scrutiny of McCrory's ties to energy interests, and raised fresh questions about the relationship between the governor's re-election campaign and outside political groups.
The Raleigh event planned for Oct. 7 was organized by Real Jobs NC, a political group founded by Art Pope and other Republican mega-donors in 2010. According to an email invitation obtained by TV station WRAL, the event aimed to raise money for "hard hitting ads" against Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, with McCrory slated to appear as a "featured guest."
Because of Hurricane Matthew, McCrory ended up not attending the event. But that he was even invited in the first place posed several legal and ethical questions, the first relating to whether the event violated state election laws.
After the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that loosened limits on corporate and union donations to political groups, lawmakers established a range of federal and state rules aimed at creating a firewall between candidates and super PAC-style committees. North Carolina's statute prevents outside political spending that's "in concert or coordination with" a campaign.
Nationally, candidates and committees have increasingly pushed the boundaries of coordination laws, causing federal and state lawmakers to propose new rules clarifying what is and isn't allowed.
As for the Real Jobs event, North Carolina election officials say that it's not clear whether McCrory's planned appearance would overstep state laws, but it certainly walked into a gray area.
Amy Strange, deputy director for campaign finance and operations at the N.C. State Board of Elections, told The News & Observer, "It is unclear whether Pat McCrory is coordinating with Real Jobs NC to benefit his campaign, but appearing at the event could generate questions about potential coordination."
Big Energy connections
Also notable was who sent the invitation for the Real Jobs NC fundraiser. The email came from Michael Whatley, a partner in the national energy lobbying firm HBW Resources.
Most North Carolinians probably haven't heard of HBW Resources, but behind the scenes its lobbyists have been intimate associates of McCrory, especially in his push for offshore drilling.
Since January 2014, McCrory has been chairman of the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, a group pushing for oil drilling off the Atlantic Coast.
The Governors Coalition describes itself as "a group of coastal state governors," but Big Energy calls the shots. As Facing South revealed in an in-depth investigative series last year, HBW Resources and its sister group the Consumer Energy Alliance run the Governors Coalition's day-to-day operations.
In public records obtained by Facing South, the energy lobbyists admitted to "executing all day-to-day administrative, writing and research needs of the Coalition' and helping direct the group's "internal and external communication and media engagement" in pushing for offshore drilling.
McCrory and HBW Resources suffered a setback in March, when the Obama administration announced Atlantic waters would be excluded from its five-year offshore drilling plan. But as the Real Jobs NC fundraiser shows, energy lobbyists are still going to bat for McCrory.
McCrory's ties to Big Energy run long and deep. Across the country, few politicians — especially at the state level — have been as generously backed and politically intertwined with energy interests.
For 29 years, McCrory worked for the company that's now Duke Energy. Between 2000 and 2012, he received more than $98,000 in donations from the company's PAC and executives, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. A Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies analysis of campaign finance records shows that since 2008, Duke and Progress Energy — which merged in 2012 — have contributed $4.5 million to the Republican Governors Association, which spent $9.7 million to support McCrory's first two election bids.
In turn, McCrory has been responsive to the needs of Duke Energy. After the company's 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River, McCrory allowed it to pass cleanup costs to ratepayers. McCrory hosted a dinner with company executives and state regulators at the governor's mansion in 2015; later, his administration lowered Duke Energy's fine for the spill from $25 million to $6 million. His administration has also downplayed threats to drinking water from Duke Energy's coal ash dumps.
McCrory ties to energy interests don't stop there. From 2009 to 2011, he was a spokesperson for Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by oil and gas magnates Charles and David Koch. In 2012, Americans for Prosperity spent $130,000 benefiting McCrory's gubernatorial run.
From 2010 to 2012, McCrory was also a senior strategist at Moore & Van Allen, a Charlotte-based legal and lobbying firm representing energy interests. During McCrory's two-year tenure, the firm led a "targeted educational effort" to promote offshore drilling and promised to help industry clients "secure appointments to legislative study committees" on the issue.
When McCrory first ran for governor in 2008, he campaigned as an "outsider." From public interest and environmental groups, he's earned another label: Big Energy's governor.