- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 13, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina Republicans continue to attack Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over a $57.8 million agreement his office reached with utilities poised to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Now, the GOP hopes that criticism will garner the attention of federal prosecutors.

State Republican Party leaders asked Tuesday for a federal investigation of whether Cooper broke the law with the memorandum of understanding, calling it possible extortion by the governor for his personal or political benefit.

GOP lawmakers and their allies have been persistent in going after Cooper over the agreement, saying it put the governor in control of funds that should be expended by the General Assembly. The legislature passed a law last month taking effect later this week that would intercept money coming from the agreement and earmark it for school districts along the route of the natural gas pipeline.

Cooper and his office have defended the agreement and said that nothing unlawful was done. He and other Democrats have dismissed the new law redirecting the funds as a partisan power grab by Republicans.

The money in the memo would have gone to environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy, but it lacked many details on how the funds would be distributed. Cooper’s office announced the agreement the same day as state regulators approved a key permit, leading critics to suggest the permit was conditional upon the agreement.

“It’s an obvious to pay-to-play situation,” state Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said during a news conference outside a Raleigh federal building before giving a written request for an investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “This is not a message that builds confidence in our citizens and it definitely sends a negative note and message to potential businesses looking at North Carolina.”

Cooper and a top environmental regulator have said permitting had no connection to the agreement and were carried out separately.

Cooper’s office didn’t respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment on the request for the probe, but a state Democratic Party spokesman called it the latest bogus theory over the fund put forth by Republicans heading into a difficult election year.

“Republicans are flailing from one conspiracy to the next because they’re terrified of the wave of Democratic enthusiasm that is going to sweep them out of office,” the spokesman, Robert Howard, said in a release.

There was no new previously undisclosed information in the request or discussed in Tuesday’s news conference by Hayes and GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse. Still, Woodhouse said, “a serious look by federal investigators is warranted.”

Don Connelly, a spokesman for Bobby Higdon, the U.S. attorney for eastern North Carolina, confirmed receipt of the written request but said the policy of Higdon’s office and the U.S. Justice Department is to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation. Woodhouse said the request also was sent to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The GOP has been going after Cooper on the pipeline for several weeks. First, GOP lawmakers unexpectedly grilled Cooper’s new legislative lobbyist over the deal during a committee meeting last month, just before the law redirecting the agreement funds was debated.

Legislative leaders then asked Cooper’s lobbyist for written answers to their questions. The Senate Rules Committee chairman last week asked for another hearing on the matter, which Cooper’s chief of staff called a political stunt. And the conservative-leaning Civitas Institute filed a state ethics complaint against Cooper over the agreement.

The pipeline - to be operated by Dominion Resources, Duke Energy and other utilities- reached a somewhat similar $58 million memorandum with Virginia for forestry, wildlife and other environmental mitigation.

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