As North Carolina’s top prosecutor, state Attorney General Roy Cooper is expected to move quickly when he sees something that could impede the investigation of illegal activity.
And that’s just what Cooper did Monday. He held a news conference to oppose a state Senate budget provision that would remove most of investigative functions of the State Bureau of Investigation from the Department of Justice and make that work part of the Department of Public Safety.
The attorney general, who heads the Department of Justice, is elected statewide. The secretary of the Department of Public Safety is appointed by the governor. The switch could give a governor more leverage to influence an investigation of his administration or his political friends.
“This is bad for law enforcement, public safety and the fight against public corruption,” Cooper said.
It’s also bad for the attorney general, who would lose considerable power. And it’s good for the governor, who would gain it. Cooper is one of the state’s most prominent Democrats. Gov. Pat McCrory is a Republican. You don’t need an SBI agent to figure out what this is about, through even McCrory thinks it's unnecessary.
Still, even for jaded political observers, this is a remarkable political move. It’s at once brazen and hypocritical. Republicans swept into power in state government by claiming they were going to end public corruption. This switch, offered as an efficiency move, could foster public corruption.
Cooper said, “For over 75 years, the SBI has provided a check on power, and no matter who controls the state legislature, the governor’s office or the attorney general’s office, this system works best. Putting the SBI under any governor’s administration increases the risk that corruption and cover-up occur with impunity.”
The Republican proposal includes what Cooper called a “fig leaf” of protection against official corruption. Five of the agency’s 423 personnel would be left with the attorney general’s office to handle public corruption investigations.
That’s hardly enough manpower to keep up with miscreant public officials. Over the last decade, Cooper said, the SBI has investigated more than 500 public officials, including the past two governors’ administrations, a House speaker, legislators and the Highway Patrol, an agency under the Department of Public Safety. Moving oversight of the SBI could also complicate current investigations that may involve offices under the governor.
The problems with shifting control of the SBI would apply to any administration, but they are especially relevant now. Kieran Shanahan, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety, already has raised eyebrows for failing to see the conflict in being a law enforcement official while continuing to be engaged with clients served by his law firm. Meanwhile, McCrory is pushing for having more private interests take over what have been government functions. He wants private companies involved in the state’s corporate recruitment and in the handling of the state-federal Medicaid program.
If McCrory’s administration wants to blur the line between government and private businesses, the attorney general needs to sharpen his focus on it. That means he needs to continue to oversee the SBI – all of it.