NC Attorney General pans Senate plan to restructure SBI

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 20, 2013 

— North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors from across the state say an N.C. Senate proposal to move most of the State Bureau of Investigation under the governor will hamper political corruption probes.

The law enforcement officers gathered Monday morning, less than a full day after the state Senate rolled out a budget plan that moves most of the investigative arm of the SBI from the state Department of Justice, overseen by the elected attorney general, into the Department of Public Safety, which is headed by an appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory.

“This is bad for law enforcement, public safety and the fight against public corruption,” Cooper told a crowd of reporters.

The SBI supplied much of the manpower in the recent probes into the campaigns and administrations of former Govs. Bev Perdue and Mike Easley, both Democrats. SBI investigators helped build cases against Jim Black, a former Democratic Speaker of the House who went to federal prison on a public corruption charge, and Meg Scott Phipps, a former Democratic state Agriculture Commissioner who served time in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.

The State Highway Patrol and Department of Correction also have been the targets of numerous investigations, as have other state agencies.

For 75 years, Cooper said, the SBI has “provided a check on power.” Prosecutors, courts and the public, he argued, have relied on the investigations because of the SBI’s independence.

“No matter who controls the state legislature, the governor’s office or the attorney general’s office, this system works best,” Cooper said. “Putting the SBI under any governor’s administration increases the risk that corruption and cover-up occur with impunity.”

McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo said the governor also opposed the restructuring. She told The Associated Press: “We have other operational priorities we need to fix.”

Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville and an architect of the Senate’s $20.6 billion spending plan, said the consolidation will save $2 million by the second year.

The SBI is the only state law enforcement office outside the state Department of Public Safety.

“Coordination among law enforcement agencies is vital, and housing them within one agency is common sense,” Brown said. “It simply does not make sense for the state’s top attorney to supervise the SBI, just like it wouldn’t make sense for your local district attorney to supervise your sheriffs or police.”

The restructuring proposal came about without any public committee meetings or hearings.

The Senate plan leaves the SBI crime lab, a subject of controversy in recent years, under the attorney general. It also leaves one investigative unit with the attorney general, a team that Cooper contends ultimately would amount to no more than six agents out of the 423 employed with the agency. He described the unit as “a fig leaf that will severely cripple the fight against public corruption.”

The N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association also oppose the proposed restructuring, and prosecutors from both major political parties stood by Cooper on Monday to show their opposition, too.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, a Republican, said he would rather see the focus shifted to the SBI crime lab, which he said is underfunded. Prosecutors often wait a year to 15 months for blood tests in DWI cases, O’Neill and other prosecutors said. Drug cases take even longer, they said. Prosecutors routinely receive announcements about lab technicians leaving the SBI for better-paying jobs elsewhere.

“The emphasis really needs to be on paying the agents more and funding the labs,” O’Neill said.

Some counties, including Wake, have been shifting more of their lab tests to local law enforcement agencies to expedite cases.

O’Neill said he didn’t see the restructuring as a power grab. “I don’t see this as politics,” O’Neill said. “I think they’re trying to figure out ways to save money.”

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said saving money was “a noble goal, but we’ve got to make the lab workable.”

Willoughby, who helped lead the investigations into Easley and Perdue, added that the SBI director should not serve at the pleasure of the governor.

“This appears to be a Washington solution in search of a problem,” he said.

Staff writers Lynn Bonner and Joe Neff contributed.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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