The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

With former Duke Energy executive Pat McCrory now sworn in as governor of North Carolina, Duke Energy could be more powerful than ever — and that’s not a good thing.

The company’s controversial merger with Progress Energy has been settled, making Charlotte-based Duke Energy the largest electric utility in the country. The environmental advocacy group N.C. WARN estimates Duke now controls roughly 97 percent of North Carolina’s electricity.

An analysis [PDF] by Democracy North Carolina found that before the merger, the two companies’ combined 2009-10 spending of roughly $19 million on lobbying and campaign expenditures would have made it the state’s largest corporate political action committee.

With the merger, the newly created utility giant is now poised to exert an even greater influence on lawmakers from both N.C. political parties.

McCrory worked at Duke for nearly three decades, and his employment there continued during his seven-term run as the Republican mayor of Charlotte. That’s fine — being mayor is technically a part-time job.

But the Democratic group N.C. Citizens for Progress vocally criticized McCrory during the 2012 campaign for refusing to make his Duke salary public and for testifying to Congress as Charlotte’s mayor against proposed air quality regulations that could hurt Duke’s bottom line.

McCrory has now appointed two former Duke employees to his Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce and Director of the Office of State Personnel.

With that in mind, the state’s new governor has a big decision in front of him.

In his first term, McCrory could make at least three new appointments (including a new chair) to the seven-member N.C. Utilities Commission. He could also name a new Public Staff executive director to represent state residents in utility cases.

NC WARN and AARP North Carolina are pressuring McCrory to recuse himself from these decisions. Their letter to McCrory says: “After being employed at Duke Energy for 28 years, you have an actual conflict of interest.” They’re absolutely right.

These appointments will directly impact North Carolina families and small businesses. Duke Energy already received a 7.2 percent rate hike in 2012 and is seeking additional rate increases. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is opposing Duke’s requests because of the discrepancy between the company’s profits and the burden of repeated rate hikes.

McCrory’s bid for governor was built around restoring public trust in state government after a string of corruption charges linked to Democrats.

Duke’s ethics scandal [PDF] involving its Indiana subsidiary hiring the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission’s general counsel should serve as a warning — nothing would take the bloom off the rose like an improper relationship between Duke and the new governor.

To stick to his campaign promises, McCrory should put some distance between himself and his former employer.

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