NORTH CAROLINA, USA — RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Gov. Roy Cooper's administration has told workers not to speak with an outside investigator from the General Assembly tasked with reviewing a side deal Cooper made with developers of a natural gas pipeline.

A legislative committee agreed recently to hire a firm of ex-federal agents to examine last year's memorandum of understanding between Cooper and utilities building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Firm investigators called Department of Environmental Quality workers this month seeking interviews with four workers, without success.

Kristi Jones, Cooper's chief of staff, wrote Republican lawmakers last week saying the workers are declining interviews because they aren't protected from what she calls "underhanded" or illegal interrogation. Republican leaders writing her Wednesday called those arguments "outrageous" and point out the firm is comprised of people who served the country admirably.