A top state official and a long-serving mayor weighed in three 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.
Ross noted the 2005 phone calls in an e-mail message. Tolson and Richter, who is also chairman of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission, told Ross that Agri-Ethanol Products officials were nervous because they still needed permits and that lenders were anxious to show progress.
The callers emphasized their view that the project must satisfy applicable requirements and their hope that the permitting process could move along. Both callers see this project having the potential to provide significant economic, environmental, and social benefits to the county and to Eastern NC.
Tolson said he doesn't remember much about the call, except that someone from Agri-Ethanol called him and asked him to call Ross.
"I may have been part of a team that was trying to get ethanol alternative energy plants in North Carolina,” said Tolson, who is now president and chief executive of the N.C. Biotechnology Center.
Richter, who has been mayor of Washington Park in western Beaufort County for 30 years, said he made the call on his own because he was interested in getting the plant built. He said he doesn’t remember specifics of the call.
"While I had no beef with DENR as an organization or with any of the individuals that I knew in DENR at the time, it is a large and cumbersome process to get something like an ethanol plant permitted,” Richter said.
Ross said in an interview that he doesn’t specifically remember the calls. But he said such a call would not have been unusual and that his standard response is to send an e-mail documenting the call and asking subordinates to check on the permits or paperwork.
"There was nothing to be eyebrow raising about this at that time,” he said. “It was a call similar to calls that we get on a regular basis."
A public records request of Ross’ e-mail account shows that this year he has received inquiries about various projects from state lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, Sen. Elizabeth Dole and a county manager among others.
bill ross e-mail.pdf