When Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff Thomas Stith accused a respected state toxicologist of lying under oath, he hadn’t even read the deposition in question.
And what Stith said in his own deposition, taken last month by the Southern Environmental Law Center, indicates that hearsay prompted him to hold a late-night press conference to accuse Ken Rudo of perjury.
However, Stith refused to answer several questions under oath: those pertaining to coal ash pollution, the interaction of Duke Energy and state government officials about that pollution, and the enforcement of the law against Duke Energy. These details are included in a motion to compel filed in state court by the SELC, which seeks to force Stith to answer those questions.
The SELC is representing six conservation and environmental groups in a lawsuit against Duke Energy over statewide coal ash pollution.
Stith said in his deposition that it was his idea to hold the late-night press conference on August 2nd. He said he also conferred with Josh Ellis, the governor’s director of communications, and he had a “brief conversation” about the press conference with McCrory, according to court documents.
“I became aware that statements … in the media concerning a meeting at the Capitol. I was very concerned about it, and was told that —based on what I was told, the information was inaccurate. And so I began to think that this was very serious and would probably need to have a response to it.”
According to Stith, McCrory told him to “use your judgment. Do the right thing.”
Stith said Ellis was his source of information about the allegedly inaccurate statements.
The statements originated from a deposition, in which Rudo testified that in April, he had been summoned to the governor’s office to discuss health risk assessments for private well owners whose water had been contaminated as a result of coal ash.
Ellis and Kendra Gerlach, the communications director for the Department of Health and Human Services, also attended the meeting at the Capitol.
Rudo had testified that Megan Davies, the state epidemiologist, called him as he was driving to Chapel Hill. Rudo said that Davies told him to “turn around, to go back that the governor wanted to discuss this.”
Rudo said that McCrory briefly had been on the conference call.
Stith said he felt that was an inaccurate representation of what occurred, even though he acknowledged that he didn’t know what Davies had said: “My read is that Dr. Rudo felt the governor had called him to the capitol,” Stith testified. “That is the way I interpret that statement.”
Since the press conference, Stith said he had reviewed most of Rudo’s deposition and still maintains the toxicologist committed perjury.
Attorneys for the SELC took Stith step by step through many of Rudo’s statements. Over the course of the deposition, it became clear that Stith made assumptions that led him to accuse Rudo of lying under oath.
Stith said he was told that Rudo “volunteered to come to the building … not that he was summoned” to the Capitol.
Stith also maintains the governor did not participate in the meeting with Rudo and Ellis by phone. However Stith testified “it is my understanding” that McCrory called Ellis during that meeting, but that he didn’t know the nature of the conversation:
“My understanding is the only thing that was said was, “Hello Governor,’ as Josh [Ellis] was walking out of the room. So there was no conversation between Josh and the governor. It was a greeting.”
“My understanding is the governor did not participate in the meeting,” Stith testified. “So my thought would be he couldn’t have made a statement to Dr. Rudo.”
Ellis has been Stith’s sole source of information about the matter. As of September 1st, a month after the press conference, Stith still had not confirmed the events and allegations with the governor. Nor had Stith spoken with Davies or anyone from the NC Department of Environmental Quality, he testified.
He did discuss Rudo’s deposition “with my family and my pastor,” Stith said.
According to court documents, Stith was represented by outside counsel hired by the McCrory’s office, Dickson Phillips, III and Erik Zimmerman of a Chapel Hill firm and and by the governor’s general counsel, Bob Stephens and Jonathan Harris.
During the deposition, Phillips repeatedly told Stith not to answer questions about coal ash. However, court documents say, Phillips didn’t claim privilege, nor did he follow state rules of civil procedure, which requires the respondent to seek a court order to prevent him or her from responding.
“He is not a scientist,” Phillips told the SELC. “We don’t think he has any competent evidence to offer in this case.”