Senate budget tries again to move SBI from attorney general

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMay 29, 2014 

— For the third time since Republicans took over the General Assembly, Senate budget-writers are trying to shift control of the State Bureau of Investigation from the attorney general to the governor.

They say it would be a more efficient and logical place to put the agency, and they have developed safeguards to “depoliticize” the move. But since Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is likely to run against Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016, politics overshadows everything about the issue.

The Senate budget would also strip the State Crime Lab from Cooper’s Department of Justice and, along with the SBI, move their 638 employees to the Department of Public Safety, which already houses the rest of the state’s standalone law enforcement divisions.

It would be a massive transfer of power from one elected official to another. Cooper, many prosecutors and law enforcement officials strongly oppose the move. They say it would jeopardize the independence of the SBI, which investigates executive branch as well as legislative and judicial branch agencies.

SBI agents, under Cooper, helped make a criminal case against Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and against aides of Gov. Bev Perdue, also a Democrat. Both cases involved campaign finance law violations. Currently, the SBI is assisting federal investigators in a probe of coal-ash regulation, which involves McCrory’s environmental regulatory agency, and is conducting investigations that involve legislators and the Department of Public Safety, Cooper says.

“When a U.S. attorney or a prosecutor calls on the SBI, they want an independent agency that can help them find the truth,” Cooper said in an interview Thursday. “They do not want an agency that is maybe governed by the very people who are being investigated.”

Cooper said he hopes McCrory will stick with the position he had last year, when he said he didn’t want to assume authority for the SBI. But McCrory is reconsidering.

McCrory told reporters on Thursday that he had discussed it with other governors and didn’t have a problem with it. He said he would be talking in more detail with Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry, who had a long career as an FBI agent.

“Wherever you put the SBI, there could be potential conflicts of interest,” McCrory said. “I think the goal is to keep politics out of all investigations, and as a mayor and as a governor we have done just that.”

New SBI structure

The Senate plan proposes a unique structure for the SBI in Public Safety – making it a part of that department but run by a director appointed by the governor to an eight-year term.

The thinking is that having a director serving a lengthy term, not subject to removal with the change of administrations, would help insulate the SBI from political influence.

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican from Wilson who co-chairs the justice and public safety budget committee, said the goal is to have a professional director and not a political appointee.

“We tried really hard to take the politics out of it,” Newton said in an interview Thursday.

Newton said it would also be more efficient to combine technology and training, and it would provide a potential career path for law enforcement officers who might want to change jobs.

Still, Cooper acknowledged he is concerned that the entire move might be politically motivated.

“I believe that law enforcement has to be nonpartisan and nonpolitical, and I hope that argument will win the day,” he said. “I won’t speculate on their motivation until the end of the day.”

Cooper also opposes moving the crime lab, which last year the General Assembly moved out from under the SBI’s control but left in the Justice Department. The lab has had highly publicized problems in past years. Cooper says it doesn’t make sense to move the lab out of one law enforcement agency only to put it in another.

In previous years, law enforcement and prosecutors have persuaded legislators not to move the SBI, out of concerns that the agency remain as independent as possible.

Sheriffs group opposed

Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs Association, said members of his organization continue to think the SBI should remain in the Justice Department, as it has since it was created in 1937.

He said there is concern that if merged with Public Safety, the comparatively small SBI could lose resources and attention amid the large department’s needs. He said that could mean fewer agents, when the state needs more of them.

Sheriffs also think law enforcement should be as local as possible, through county sheriffs and city police. There is concern that merging agencies would diminish the unique roles that each of the state law enforcement agencies have, he said.

“Sheriffs are opposed to a state police force,” Caldwell said. “If they were consolidated, it would only be one step away from a state police.”

Public Safety’s law enforcement division is comprised of the State Highway Patrol, Alcohol Law Enforcement, state Capitol Police, and some smaller programs.

The General Assembly and nine state agencies have their own law enforcement officers who are not part of Public Safety: revenue, insurance, parks and recreation, motor vehicle license and theft, wildlife, agriculture, secretary of state securities, marine fisheries and the UNC campuses.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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