Cooper, Highway Patrol refuse to provide answers, documents about out of state travel

Updated: Oct. 17, 2019 at 4:36 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) – Governor Roy Cooper and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol have refused to provide answers and documents about the Governor’s out of state travel.

For months, WBTV has been attempting to investigate the means by which Cooper traveled to New York City on two occasions in January and June.

But the station’s investigation has been thwarted by an insistence from the North Carolina Highway Patrol that it does not keep records related to Cooper’s travel out of state and the refusal by Cooper and his staff to answer any questions about his travel.

As a result, there is no way to know the details of who is paying for Cooper’s out of state travel, where he is going or who he is meeting with, even when those trips involve state personnel paid with public tax dollars.

The NCSHP’s assertions regarding its records is contradicted by previous record keeping practices during previous governors’ administrations and by the agency’s own policies.

In October 2016, WBTV obtained travel records for then-Governor Pat McCrory after the station intervened in a public records lawsuit seeking records it had requested from the Governor’s Office and NCSHP.

NCSHP claims policy change, but explanation contradicts policy

In that records production, the NCSHP provided a standard record called an EP-25, which detailed McCrory’s travel both within North Carolina and out of state.

The records included details of McCrory’s flights and other travel arrangements.

But a NCSHP spokesman said the agency is no longer keeping forms EP-25 for out of state travel.

“According to our records, no EP-25 has been created for out of state travel since November 2014. At that point, the Patrol changed its practice of completing this form for out of state travel due to its nonessential nature,” Sgt. Chris Knox said.

“As previously indicated, the purpose of an EP-25 is for the Executive Protection Detail to coordinate the Governor’s travel details with other members of the State Highway Patrol in the county of the scheduled event. Therefore, it is only generated when the governor travels outside of Wake County but within the State of North Carolina.”

Knox said the change was in keeping with Directive J.7 of the NC State Highway Patrol Policy Manual, which dictates requirements of the Executive Protection Unit—the NCSHP unit responsible for protecting the governor—in making security arrangements for the governor’s travel.

But the directive contradicts the explanation offered by Knox, who claimed the policy only applied to travel within the state.

Instead, the directive says the EPU will be responsible for “Coordinating, planning, and surveying travel routes and activities involving a protectee’s travel into other areas of the state or nation, and coordinate activities involving a protectee’s security with any outside agencies to include the United States Secret Service.”

Knox, the spokesman, did not provide an answer to multiple follow-up inquiries from a WBTV reporter seeking an explanation for the contradiction between the NCSHP’s policy directive and his statement.

Minutes before publication, Knox emailed a WBTV reporter a new explanation as to why the NCSHP would not produce additional records.

“As you are aware, pursuant to NCGS § 132-1.7(a), ‘Public records, as defined in G.S. 132-1, shall not include . . . plans, schedules, or other documents that include information regarding patterns or practices associated with executive protection and security.’ Accordingly, it is our position that we have provided the public record documents that are responsive to your requests regarding this matter,” Knox’s email said.

The email did not explain why Knox had previously claimed the agency did not create the records being sought by the station. Nor did he immediately respond to a reply email pointing out that the Public Records Act requires non-public information in an otherwise public record be redacted and the rest of the record be produced.

Records completed with seemingly incorrect information

But the NCSHP did provide two other forms in response to WBTV’s request.

Two other forms—known as an EP-20 and EP-21, respectively—track mileage troopers accrue in the course of performing their jobs during events that require reimbursement to the state.

The NCSHP provided forms tracking a total of four days in responsive to WBTV’s request for records related to Cooper’s travel on January 31 and June 20.

On January 31, a Form EP-20 shows troopers drove a total of 29 miles—the exact round trip mileage from the Governor’s Mansion to RDU Airport—for an event in Wake County at 7:00 a.m.

The form lists the “event” as a meeting.

A Form EP-20 shows the same mileage and event description for the next day, too.

The Form EP-20 for June 20 lists the same mileage and event description but lists the time of the ‘meeting’ as 5:30 a.m.

A form for the following day shows the same mileage and event description for an event at 8:50 a.m.

When asked about the seemingly incorrect description of the event on a mileage reimbursement form documenting a trip to drop off and pick up Cooper from the airport, Knox did not respond.

Cooper refuses to answer questions

Similarly, Cooper refused to answer questions from a WBTV reporter for this story.

A reporter first sent an email to Cooper’s press office on Thursday, October 10 asking for an interview or answers to a list of questions for this story.

That email had not received an acknowledgement or response by the time Cooper spoke at an event and held a media availability the following Tuesday, October 15.

“Governor, how did you get to New York City on January 31 and June 20 of this year for your fundraisers?” a WBTV reporter asked.

“I don’t - I’d have to look at my calendar,” Cooper responded.

Cooper wouldn’t answer questions about the NCSHP’s assertion that it has no records tracking the governor’s travel and then, when asked about the NCSHP record that claims he had a 5:30 a.m. meeting, said he couldn’t remember.

“Were you at a meeting at 5:30 in the morning?” the WBTV reporter asked.

“I don’t- don’t remember what my schedule was that day,” Cooper said. “But, look, I travel for political reasons, I travel for economic development and recruitment and my office will provide all of the public records to you that are required under the public records law.”

When the reporter tried to ask follow-up questions of Cooper, a staffer interrupted before Cooper said the reporter was “hitting him cold.”

Cooper’s press office provided two pages of the Governor’s calendar the following day but did not provide any other communication records created by Cooper’s staff regarding his travel on those two days, which WBTV also requested.

The calendar pages for both days show Cooper was traveling but do not includes any other details.

Sadie Weiner, Cooper’s communications director, sent the following statement:

“Our office maintains public records for official state travel. The Governor was not traveling for state business on these days and no state aircraft were used.”

The statement did not address why records responsive to only one part of WBTV’s request was provided and not any communication records. A follow-up email raising that same question did not get a response from the press office as of Thursday morning.

Similarly, Knox, the NCSHP spokesman, emailed a WBTV reporter late Tuesday afternoon to say he was checking on the station’s questions for this story but never followed up and did not respond to other emails or phone calls.

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