Long after Watergate brought him down (40 years ago this month), Richard Nixon told David Frost: “I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish.”
Now, Governor McCrory’s actions on coal ash don’t begin to approach Nixon’s on Watergate. But he has given his enemies a sword tipped with toxic political poison, and they will stick it in and twist it with relish.
First, the story renews questions about the political competence of McCrory and his team. Second, it comes just as public anger is growing over whether ratepayers will pay for the cleanup – and the very same day the legislature returns to Raleigh to again do nothing about the issue. And third, it looks like the media has concluded it didn’t give McCrory adequate scrutiny in 2012, which means that the scrutiny – and suspicion – will grow between now and 2016.
Just as Nixon could have lanced the Watergate boil early, McCrory could have turned this story around early. Here is what he should have said right after the spill in February:
“This is a serious problem, and it will require serious action. I will not let my career at Duke Energy keep me from carrying out my responsibilities to North Carolina. So I am immediately divesting myself of all my Duke stock, and I will be open, forthcoming and transparent as I deal with this matter.” He should have reported exactly how much stock he sold and how much it was worth.
Or, as a TAPster emailed today: “The bigger question in his latest mess is why he still owned Duke stock after he was sworn in as governor? That means he was a stockholder when he appointed utilities commissioners and made other decisions that impacted the company and its earnings. How can any reasonable person think that is ok?”
If he had sold the stock, McCrory could have made one thing perfectly clear (as Nixon would have said): Coal ash has been piling up for 30 years, under Democratic and Republican governors. The state approved that disposal method because it kept electric rates down and helped North Carolina bring in industry and jobs. McCrory didn’t need to be heavy-handed in making the point, because it’s a fair point and an indisputable fact. He then could be the hero who cleans up the mess.
His legal counsel twice prepared – and McCrory twice signed – ethics statements that failed to disclose the stock. McCrory’s counsel gamely takes the blame and says he misunderstood the forms. You can examine the forms and reach your own conclusion, but they clearly say you are to report all holdings over $10,000 as of December 31 of the previous year. And when the Governor signed the forms he knew what he owned and when he owned it.
Clearly, the N&O believes it was misled. The story said: “The News & Observer has sought for weeks to clarify the timing of McCrory’s sale, and McCrory’s office had said there was nothing new. On July 10, for example, (Josh) Ellis wrote in an email message that ‘the governor has complied with all disclosure requirements.’ That changed late Wednesday with the new filing and follow-up interviews with Ellis.”
Ellis, the Governor’s spokesman, didn’t help his boss’ case by trying to pass the blame beyond the counsel: “The stock was sold in response to repeated public requests via the media and to stop the constant, unfounded challenges of the governor’s character.”
Ellis struck the same chord in a statement May 1: “As public records have shown since April 15, the governor is not a shareholder of Duke Energy. This eliminates the often repeated, ridiculous and false, partisan left-wing attacks challenging the intent of our decisions and policies.”
No, it doesn’t eliminate them. It invites more. It dares the media to double down on its McCrory scrutiny. And it makes it harder for the Governor to push back.