McCrory staffer under fire after calling scientist liar

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Gov. Pat McCrory's chief of staff under fire over coal ash remarks.

The coal ash saga that started as an environmental disaster two-and-a-half years ago has about as many tributaries and spin-offs as the Dan River, which absorbed tens of thousands of tons of toxic coal ash after a pipe burst under a Duke Energy coal ash pond in Eden.

The most recently formed arm of the state's coal ash conundrum wanders through political country -- and high ground at that.

Gov. Pat McCrory's Chief of Staff accused a top state scientist of perjury in his court testimony about a coal ash meeting he was called to at the State Capitol, but may have opened himself up to similar charges in his own testimony, which was released this week.


The night of Aug. 2, McCrory's Chief of Staff, Thomas Stith, called an impromptu news conference. He wanted to refute what he saw as unfounded allegations embedded in the court testimony of long-time State Toxicologist Ken Rudo.

Rudo testified that in April 2015, he was told by his boss, then-State Epidemiologist Megan Davies, to report to the State Capitol; he was being summoned by the governor.

The governor was not there when he arrived. Instead, he would talk with McCrory's Communications Director, Josh Ellis, and the Communications Director at the Department of Health and Human Services where Rudo worked.

Rudo testified that the Governor called into that meeting and took part in it. That turned out to be important. It was one of the key few bits of Rudo's hundreds of pages of testimony that Stith took issue with.

In his news conference about Rudo's testimony, Stith called the toxicologist a "liar" saying the governor did not "participate" in the meeting.

But in his own testimony, released this week, Stith admitted he didn't read Dr. Rudo's testimony, confer with legal counsel, or confirm the details of the meeting with the governor before accusing Rudo of lying.

"This story doesn't add up," said Democratic House Leader Larry Hall (D-Durham), "and that's why the Governor's Chief of Staff should have checked in with McCrory to see if his story was accurate. He could have done that. He didn't do that.

"Why wouldn't he read the testimony himself or at least check with legal counsel before accusing a 28 year state employee, a professional, someone who has jurisdictional authority over insuring citizens of North Carolina, have good clean drinking water? Why would he accuse him without having any facts or any basis or any legal advice?" Hall added.

At a news conference in front of the Capitol, Hall went on to question why Stith, having not been in the meeting himself, would have gotten involved.

"He didn't have to respond," Hall said. "The governor and Mr. Ellis were the two who were apparently in the meeting. Not Mr. Stith. So he didn't have to respond. He didn't have any personal knowledge of what happened."

Hall also called into question a part of Stith's testimony in which he said the only people he talked to about the deposition, other than the governor briefly, were his family and his pastor.

"How can that be?" Hall asked. "This has been a major, ongoing story. It's undermined families' confidence and possibly their health. And the governor's Chief of Staff has not discussed it with anyone?"

WATCH: Rep. Larry Hall calls for apology, independent investigation
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Democratic State Rep. Larry Hall.

The Democratic House leader closed the news conference with a call for an independent investigation.

"The governor's chief of staff falsely accused a state employee of lying under oath, either intentionally or because of ineptitude so broad that it's almost inconceivable," Hall said. "The governor should investigate this matter with an independent investigation. He should put Mr. Stith on probation and suspend him and instruct him to cooperate fully with the investigation. He should disclose all information and then a decision should be made after the investigation as to who should keep their job and who should be fired."

Hall also called for the administration to issue a public, written and official apology to Rudo and Davies. Davies resigned over the incident, saying she couldn't work for an administration that "deliberately misleads the public."


The I-Team asked McCrory's communications team for an interview with Stith and/or for a comment on the Democratic call for an investigation.

Ellis, the communications director who was at the central meeting, returned the call but would only speak off the record. He offered this comment sent out by the administration after the court documents were released Tuesday:

"Despite the fact that our office has no relevancy to this legal case, we've done more than enough to accommodate the SELC's request by voluntarily allowing the deposition of two employees and producing hundreds of pages of documents. We're not going to subject state employees to what we view as an abuse of the legal process-especially when it is increasingly clear that the goal for the SELC is publicity, not fact finding. More importantly, the SELC is attempting to distract attention from the fact that other parties involved have resoundingly rejected Ken Rudo's statements under oath."

SELC is the Southern Environmental Law Center, an environmental advocacy group at the center of a number of court cases that involve coal ash disputes. SELC lawyers are the attorneys in the Stith deposition and have released a number of related depositions.

"There's only one way to get public confidence," Hall said. "That's to go back and have an independent investigation and follow the results and whoever was responsible for deceiving North Carolina citizens and putting their health at risk needs to be terminated.

The State Democratic Party also smells political blood in the water.

"Why aren't we getting to the bottom of this," asked Democratic Party Communications Director Dave Miranda.

The Democratic Party submitted an open records request asking for information related to the Rudo/Ellis meeting on May 26 and it says it hasn't heard back.

"It seems like McCrory is trying to run out the clock," Miranda said. "That's why we need an independent investigation into all of it."

Ellis takes issue with Rudo's testimony and backs Stith, but isn't saying anything about the meeting on the record. NC GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse isn't as shy.

WATCH: NCGOP's Dallas Woodhouse says Democrats are politically motivated
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NC GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse on coal ash cleanup.

"Let's be clear. This is completely political because the Democrats let coal ash pile up for the last 50 years and did nothing about it. This is a political stunt and a political attack on a government employee," Woodhouse said.

On that point, both sides might agree. Depending on which end of the telescope you look through, both sides might be seen as "attacking a government employee."

But Woodhouse didn't defend nor account for the administration's position on the Stith news conference or offer insight into who knew what about the meeting in April.

"I'm the political guy," Woodhouse said, after being pressed multiple times. "That's more of a government question. I feel confident in saying this: The Republicans involved in this are full of honor and integrity and the Democrats are making a political attack because they were unable and unwilling to clean up coal ash for the last 50 years."

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