General Assembly on the edge, but clear of doing wrong
RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers didn't exceed their authority in writing and approving a bill that appears to target a specific company for a $1.4 million cleanup project on Jordan Lake, but their approach would have been illegal by almost any other part of the government, State Auditor Beth Wood said.
"While the law is written with a striking similarity to the published features and performance specifications of a particular company's product, the General Assembly did not exceed its authority by in essence writing a law directing this appropriation to a specific company," Wood wrote in a letter obtained by The News & Observer.
In the letter, Wood, a Democrat, also wrote that state leaders aren't required to follow rules meant to "increase competition and thus help the state get the best product at the best rate."
The cleanup bill passed last year for the lake southwest of Raleigh included a highly detailed description that seemed to guarantee the project would go to Medora Corp. of North Dakota.
The newspaper also obtained emails that show the company was working with Senate leader Phil Berger's office to secure the contract months ahead of public bidding.
Berger's office said Wood's letter validates the project, pushed by the Senate leader and other Republicans as a solution to an agreement the state entered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 to reduce algae buildup caused by nitrogen and phosphorous released into the lake, which provides drinking water for about 300,000 people. The money will go toward equipment to circulate large amounts of water on the lake's surface.
Berger's staff took a swipe at Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville, who asked for the auditor's opinion.
"While we are sure Rep. McGrady, Rep. Glazier and other agents of fringe environmental groups that oppose economic growth and development in the Piedmont Triad did not get what they hoped for from Auditor Wood, we appreciate her informal assessment," Berger spokeswoman Amy Auth wrote in an email.
Glazier said that response ignored environmental concerns and said Wood's letter is a victory in principle because she said Berger and other lawmakers violated the spirit of the public bidding process.
The emails obtained by the newspaper show Berger's office was in touch with Medora Corp. representatives for months about its SolarBee water-circulating equipment.
On June 14, Berger's senior policy adviser, Jeff Warren, asked a company official for "a brief description that is detailed enough to describe this product and only apply to this product." Warren also asked, a month into the project's planning, whether there were any "similar products available."
Before the auditor's letter became public, Berger said the bill only picked a technology and not a manufacturer. He said the final decision on what equipment to use is up to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
"If there are other companies out there that have the technology, we've put no restrictions out there as to which company they can work with," he said in an interview before the auditor released her letter.
His office stood by that statement Friday.