RALEIGH — Prosecutors will make another run at persuading the state legislature to give them more power to go after corrupt public officials and complex financial crimes.
Attorney General Roy Cooper and Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby announced in a news conference Thursday that they will ask the General Assembly to give state prosecutors the authority to convene investigative grand juries, and to make it a crime to lie to State Bureau of Investigation agents.
It’s a two-pronged proposal that has failed to find traction in the legislature for at least the past 15 years. Despite that, Cooper said, he hopes to persuade legislators that the time is right to build on the SBI’s successful string of recent public corruption cases, and bolster a statewide crackdown on financial fraud.
“I believe that public officials, most of them, want to get the bad ones out,” Cooper said. “We hear lots of elected officials talk about clean, open government, free from corruption. You’ve got to make sure we have the tools to investigate and prosecute the wrongdoers.”
Rep. Leo Daughtry, a veteran Republican legislator from Smithfield who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said it was difficult to predict how the General Assembly might receive the proposals this time since so many new members are coming in.
“It’s something we should consider,” he said, “particularly lying to an SBI agent.”
Gov. Pat McCrory supported the grand jury idea when he unsuccessfully campaigned for governor in 2008, using it to emphasize that there had been several corruption prosecutions in the Democratic administration of Gov. Mike Easley and Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue. A spokeswoman for McCrory said Thursday he wouldn’t comment on a bill that hasn’t been filed yet.
Cooper said the SBI has investigated more than 500 public corruption cases over the past 10 years, singling out probes into the campaigns of Easley and Perdue, former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black of Matthews , former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance, D-Warrenton, several state legislators, sitting judges, prosecutors, and various officials in state and local government.
Even so, Cooper said, investigators run into roadblocks that could be fixed.
Regular grand juries consider whether to indict suspects based on information that prosecutors present to them. But investigative grand juries can steer cases on their own by subpoenaing documents and witnesses, and forcing people to testify under penalty of perjury.
That alone is often enough to persuade people to cooperate, Cooper and Willoughby said. In addition, SBI agents say they are routinely thwarted by those who know there are no legal repercussions for lying to them. The proposal would make it a felony to make a material false statement to an SBI agent in a criminal investigation. There are state offenses of perjury, obstruction of justice and filing a false police report, but there is no offense equivalent of lying to a federal agent. Federal authorities also can use investigative grand juries.
“Many of these officials under investigation are powerful and can put up walls and make it difficult for these investigations to occur,” Cooper said.
In 1985, the legislature gave district attorneys the ability to empanel investigative grand juries in drug-trafficking cases. Prosecutors used them extensively in the 1980s and 1990s, but gradually stopped because the cases were time-consuming and federal authorities were better equipped to handle them.
Also, several years ago state prosecutors were given the authority to use wiretaps in drug cases. They found wiretaps more fruitful than hauling lower-level dealers in front of investigative grand juries to try to pressure them into implicating the leaders of increasingly international drug rings.
There have been concerns that overreaching prosecutors or law enforcement authorities would abuse investigative grand juries or use them against political opponents. Cooper and Willoughby said there is sufficient judicial oversight in place to prevent that, and said no abuses were reported in the juries used in the drug-trafficking cases.
Willoughby said not using the super juries is akin to watching black-and-white instead of high-definition TV. “We’ve been using a tool of the ’50s and ’60s, and we need to get in the 21st century,” he said.
Recently, the state’s district attorneys formed a statewide task force to go after complex financial crimes, such as mortgage fraud. Cooper and Willoughby would like to bolster that effort by allowing investigative grand juries to handle those cases, too.