RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — New court records show a top official in Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration accused a state scientist of lying under oath without first fully reading the testimony in question.
Thomas Stith, McCrory’s chief of staff, had accused Dr. Kenneth Rudo, a state toxicologist, of lying under oath.
Rudo’s testimony had included, among other things, a claim that the state health director had “knowingly told people their water was safe when we knew it wasn’t.”
At issue were a series of letters sent to residents who draw water from wells near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds. Residents had received letters instructing them not to drink from the wells, then later received new letters, saying the water was OK to drink.
The wells in question showed elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, often called chromium-6, and vanadium.
In his deposition, Rudo also says that Gov. Pat McCrory called a specific meeting to discuss the letters. He says the governor was not physically there but was on the phone and asking about “the language on the forms.”
Late that same night, Stith, the administration official, called a press conference, saying Rudo’s testimony was a lie.
“We don’t know why Ken Rudo lied under oath, but the Governor absolutely did not take part in or request this call or meeting, as he suggests,” said Thomas Stith.
But in a court records filed on Tuesday by the Southern Environmental Law Center, Stith said under oath that he had not read Rudo’s deposition before giving his statements at the press conference.
Instead, Stith says he heard about it in the media.
Here is an excerpt from Stith’s testimony, being questioned by an attorney from SELC:
Q. “…prior to that press conference, had you reviewed Dr. Rudo’s deposition in this case?
Q. Had you seen his deposition?
A. I was aware of some of the deposition.
Q. Had you physically seen any of it?
A. I probably — can you clarify that; do you mean the actual official document?
Q. Well, I mean — yes, the transcript. Had you seen any portion of the transcript of his —
A. (Interposing) And I am not splitting — trying to split hairs. I probably saw printed versions in the press that purported to be from the actual document. So I am assuming it was the document.
Q. So does that mean you saw a newspaper report on-line that quoted from the transcript?
Stith also said the press conference was his idea, but that he discussed it with Josh Ellis, the administration’s communications director. The deposition also says Stith consulted with the Governor who told Stith to “Use your judgement. Do the right thing,” the documents state.
Court documents also show Stith refused to answer questions under oath concerning coal ash pollution, or the interactions of Duke Energy with the state government about coal ash.
“Repeatedly, counsel hired by the Governor’s office instructed Mr. Stith not to answer any questions concerning Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution, the state government’s supposed enforcement of the law as to Duke Energy, or the interaction of the Governor’s office and state government with Duke Energy concerning its coal ash pollution,” the document states.
SELC says this is a violation of North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.
At the deposition, Stith’s attorney argued that he had appeared to answer questions about Rudo, but not about the other topics.
“Mr. Stith, of course, is the Chief of Staff to the Governor of North Carolina. And we believe that he would be entitled just to not appear today based on his office,” the attorney said. “Also, of course, as I have said in my letters, he is not a scientist and he has no duties in the departments that have been primarily involved in the issues of collecting data and evaluating the data related to the coal ash ponds. So we don’t think he has any competent evidence to offer in this case. … We do understand that he has made a public statement that challenged the veracity, at least in one instance, of one of your witnesses or potential witnesses, Dr. Rudo, and that you have an interest in asking him about why he did that. … And we recognize that. And that … is basically why we are offering [him] up here to voluntarily testify, but of course, without waiver of any of the objections that we raised.”
CBS North Carolina Investigates reached out to the Governor’s office for comment. In a statement, Ellis, the communications director, said that the SELC is seeking publicity, not legal fact finding.
“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,” he wrote in a statement. “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.”
Last year, the state health department sent out letters warning people living near the ash ponds not to drink their water. At the same time, the state environmental department was saying the water was safe, which created confusion in the community and in state government.
Then earlier this summer, DHHS retracted their previous recommendations saying the water was in fact safe to drink. Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director and a deputy secretary for health services at DHHS, said the letters were sent in “abundance of caution.” The department said they recognized that no other place in the United States was being held to as strict a standard as these 220 well owners.
Rudo, a long-time employee of DHHS who was directly involved in studying these water supplies, says he tried to warn his bosses not to retract the “do not drink” letters.
“This was not protecting health,” Rudo said.
DHHS issued a statement saying that Rudo’s testimony was inconsistent with the position the department has taken as a whole. The department says it stands by its decision that was also supported by the state Department of Environmental Quality.