We’ve reported extensively on the interesting timing of certain people giving money to Thom Tillis’s Senate campaign and his vocal support of issues those donors care about. We had Tillis voicing support for film incentives, and then — within days — had folks tied to a movie studio in Wilmington dumping a lot of money on his campaign. We had beer wholesalers pouring money into the Tillis campaign right about the time state House leadership was bottling up efforts to loosen state regulations to the benefit of independent brewers.
Now, it appears WCNC in Charlotte has found one more questionable scenario involving Tillis, some wealthy donors, their real estate deals, and the proposed I-77 toll lane project enthusiastically backed by Tillis:
Toll lanes on I-77 – the DOT says they’re coming – but many voters don’t like them.
Thom Tillis supports the toll lanes. He has for years. In a May 2011 televised interview on Carolina Business Review, Tillis told interviewer Steve Crump, “I think we have to take a serious look at toll roads…we don’t have enough money coming in for the needs we have.”
Now the NBC Charlotte I-Team has documented that a group of big time Tillis campaign contributors stands to make millions from your tax dollars tied to the toll lanes.
This story all starts with a prime piece of Cornelius real estate called Augustalee.
Before the great recession, developers dreamed of turning this old farm into something like Birkdale Village. They planned a half billion dollar complex with shopping, office space, a hotel and condos.
But in the recession the deal went bust. The bank took the land. Then a couple of years ago a group of executives from a company called ACN bought Augustalee at the relative bargain price of $7 million.
ACN is a multi-level marketer like Amway. It’s based in an office building clearly visible along I-85 in Concord, NC. ACN received tax incentives to move to North Carolina from Michigan in 2008.
When ACN executives invested in the prime Cornelius property, they needed one key thing to develop Augustalee – a new exit ramp off I-77.
With an exit – insiders say their land more than doubles in value – and they stand to make millions. Without it, Cornelius town leaders say no one can develop the property because a development that size would require access to 77 at or near Westmoreland Road.
To the NC DOT, a new exit 27 has never been a priority. There are too many other projects that have ranked higher in the state formula for funding. So who would pay?
Here’s the thing: the toll lanes come with an all new bonus fund – taxpayer money from the highway fund which could pay for exit 27 and then some.
In the transportation bill passed by Tillis and the legislature, the size of the bonus fund is set at half the amount of the bonds issued for the toll lanes. So how much is that in the case of the I-77 toll lanes?
“Roughly in the area of 150 to 160 million dollars,” says Charlotte Transportation planner Bob Cook – who sits on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which doles out the money. For local transportation planners, this bonus funding is found money. It’s never come before.
“The bonus allocation is new money coming into the region related to a toll lane project,” said Cook. The legislation calls it an “incentive” to take the toll lanes, a little sweetener you might say for the bitter pill of a half century of tolls.
House Speaker Thom Tillis is widely regarded as one of the most politically powerful men in the state and he supported the transportation bill with the bonus fund tied to the toll lanes.
The Governor signed the bill last year on June 26.
We reported previously on the “bonus” taxpayer money going to local governments in the area of the toll lane project. MORE:
On June 27 – the very next day – a group of ACN executives and their wives donated $26,000 to Thom Tillis’ senate campaign
But there was a second political contribution from ACN which coincided with state action moving toward a new exit 27.
On September 13, 2013 state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker toured Augustalee. Cornelius town leaders wanted her help for exit 27. And Decker told them there was hope.
“Here I sense a real spirit of common vision for the community,” Decker said after a special called meeting of the town commission with a bus tour of development sites.
That was September 13. On September 18, five days later, a company called TC Investors donated $25,000 to the superPAC Grow NC Strong which backs Thom Tillis for the US Senate.
TC Investors is managed by a company run by Robert Stevanovski – founder and chairman of ACN.
ACN VP and General Counsel Frank Messana e-mailed us a statement saying:
“In addition to being regular supporters of both local and national charities, ACN executives have been long time supporters of people dedicated to helping businesses and making better lives for the citizens of North Carolina. They have regularly supported office holders and candidates on both sides of the aisle and have made contributions to members of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
While you have pointed out the dates of certain contributions as well as other activities involving members of the current administration, please be advised that any similarity in timing is purely coincidental.”
ACN executives have donated repeatedly to North Carolina democrat Roy Cooper, the state’s elected Attorney General, although not as heavily as to Tillis.
The Washington based Center for Responsive Politics (which tracks campaign cash through OpenSecrets.org) has criticized the use of “TC Investors” to make the superPAC donation to Grow NC Strong because ordinary voters would not know from public disclosure documents who the individuals or interest groups were behind the $25,000 contribution.
“It makes it harder to track down who is actually providing this money and who would stand to benefit from it,” said Kurt Naas, who says he voted for Tillis repeatedly but leads the opposition to the toll lanes through the group Widen I-77.
I showed Kurt Naas the dates of the campaign contributions.
“Based on what you’re telling me that certainly has an odor to it,” Naas said. “The alignment certainly seems suspicious. Whether that was coincidental or not the alignment does seem suspicious.”
But Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw says Tillis’ support for an exit 27 near the Augustalee property goes all the way back to his days as a Cornelius town commissioner.
“To try to make a connection between contributions and the mobility formula and this project would ignore the fact that Thom Tillis has thought this was a good idea for more than 10 years, which I hope you will point out in your story predates these specific owners, predates Governor McCrory, predates Secretary Decker,” Shaw said.
In the heady days before the recession, the original developers of Augustalee offered to front the money to pay for exit 27 and to widen I-77 as well, then get paid back through property tax credits.
But now – with bonus money from the taxpayers, the new Augustalee landowners from ACN wouldn’t have to pay up front for the exit. The DOT projects the exit will cost from $25 million to $40 million, depending on when it is built and how much other road widening is included.
“It’s obviously a lot cheaper to make a campaign contribution of $25 thousand and get the taxpayer to foot the bill for this via toll lanes and some pork barrel legislation,” said Naas.