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Biofuels Center issues its own obituary

The state-created Biofuels Center of North Carolina issued its own obituary today, saying it has begun winding down its operations and plans to shut down permanently by Oct. 31. All 14 employees will be out of work within 90 days, without severance payments.

The 5-year-old Oxford-based organization, which is created to help the state develop biofuels made from energy crops other than corn, lost its $4.3 million in annual funding under the reigning Republican majority in the state legislature.

Its office, with experimental plots of Arundo donax and other potential energy crops, will be returned to the N.C. Department of Agriculture. The biofuels center leased the building for $1 a year.

Now that its end is near, the center's announcement dispenses with the usual bureaucratic boilerplate and blandishments. Instead, the center characterizes its own demise as a setback for North Carolina, a competitive advantage for neighboring states and a sign of legislative myopia.

N.C. GOP seeks Perdue records

The N.C. Republican Party wants to see what public records exist that might link Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue to two campaign contributors involved in a corruption scandal.

Party officials said today they're filing a request for public records from Perdue's office. Among other things, they're looking for communication between the office and four individuals, including Barry Lee Green and Ricky Wright, David Ingram reports.

The two campaign contributors were investors in an ethanol company that is at the center of a bribery scheme. Boyce Allen Hudson, a former state official, has said he made a deal with the ethanol company in which he would help with the environmental permitting process in exchange for $100,000 cash and a consulting contract worth almost $100,000.

Hudson was sentenced last week to three years in federal prison. Republicans said they want records related to him, too.

Perdue is the Democratic nominee for N.C. governor. Last week, her campaign returned two contributions from Green and Wright.

Green and Wright have not been accused of wrongdoing.

Officials urged speed on ethanol plant

A top state official and a long-serving mayor weighed in four years ago on behalf of a proposed ethanol plant that has recently emerged at the center of a federal corruption investigation.

Records subpoenaed by federal investigators — and released to The News & Observer in response to a request under the state’s public records law — show that in September 2005, Norris Tolson, then the head of the state revenue department, and Tom Richter, the long-time mayor of Washington Park, called the head of the state environmental agency to urge speedy approval of permits for an ethanol plant in Beaufort County.

Both men said in interviews that they were unaware of Agri-Ethanol Products’ plans to bribe a different state official and that they were only asking the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to give the permit fair consideration. Neither Tolson nor Richter were named on a subpoena delivered to the state environmental agency.

Boyce Allen Hudson, a former official with the state agency, pleaded guilty last week to extortion and money laundering charges arising from the case.

An e-mail message produced in response to the subpoena shows that Tolson and Richter got the attention of Bill Ross, secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Ross sent an e-mail message to a subordinate, asking her to update Tolson and Richter about the project.

A federal prosecutor said during Hudson’s plea hearing last week that investigators got wind of Hudson’s actions when company officials began boasting to potential investors that they had political connections. Officials at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources have said that Hudson had no influence on the permits, which they say were decided on the facts.

More after the jump.



Document(s):
bill ross e-mail.pdf

Bob Etheridge

A North Carolina Congressman says ethanol is key to national security. In this podcast, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge talks about biofuels, the role of farmers in energy policy and when government subsidies will not be needed.

Download MP3

Etheridge supports biofuels

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge is promoting North Carolina ethanol.

The Lillington Democrat was in Raleigh today, visiting a lab at N.C. State's Centennial Campus that aims to produce the biofuel from poplar trees.

Currently, corn is the most cost-effective source, but Dr. Vincent Chiang believes that by genetically modifying the trees, he can make them competitive.

Etheridge said that that cellulosic ethanol could help reduce dependence on foreign oil.

"The young drivers are more likely to accept it," he said. "But as it becomes more available, I think all drivers will accept it because Americans want to wean themselves off the Middle East."

On his way out, Etheridge told Chiang that he is "as important as our top generals" to national security.

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