Moving SBI out from Justice Department smacks of political payback

June 2, 2014 

Senate Republicans are hoping the third time’s the charm – but there’s nothing charming about their ploy to move the State Bureau of Investigation out from under the jurisdiction of Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Cooper, a Democrat, is the front-runner for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2016, which would pit him against incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Although the General Assembly’s GOP leaders have virtually ignored most of the governor’s initiatives and don’t seem to defer to the former Charlotte mayor, Cooper is their nemesis. He has dared to speak out against some of their extreme legislative actions, several of which are facing court challenges just as he warned.

So now they’re trying to move the SBI to the Department of Public Safety, which happens to be an office subject to political appointment by the governor. Oh, the sponsors say they’re ensuring that the agency will be politics-free. The director, under their plan, will be appointed by the governor to an eight-year term. The SBI will retain its independence, they say.

Underlining the absurdity

But the absurdity of the change is underlined by the fact that the SBI has been operating just fine as part of the Justice Department. Republicans have convinced themselves that the agency is some sort of partisan tool for Cooper. If so, he hasn’t used it very well. It was the SBI, after all, that participated in or ran investigations of former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat and Cooper ally. Agents also investigated aides of former Gov. Beverly Perdue, another Democrat.

But right now, the SBI is helping investigate coal-ash regulations following a spill connected to Duke Energy, McCrory’s former employer. And SBI agents are conducting investigations that involve legislators and the Department of Public Safety, Cooper says.

That sounds pretty even-handed. Even McCrory has said, in the past anyway, that he doesn’t want authority for the SBI. But now, no doubt either because he fears retribution from GOP legislative leaders or because he’s trying to curry favor with them, he is indicating a change in position.

Cooper has a strong case to make for leaving the SBI just where it is. He believes that moving the agency would make it more vulnerable to political pressure. Hypothetically, and that’s all it is, what if powerful legislators or allies of the governor (any governor) were under investigation and wanted to get the SBI to back off? The head of Public Safety could have some influence there, whether the SBI director had an eight-year term or not.

Ill-conceived maneuvers

And Cooper notes that law enforcement is opposed to any change. Eddie Caldwell, general counsel of the state Sheriffs Association, said the SBI, which aids all sorts of investigations, might lose resources if it were simply part of a larger department. He believes, and his sheriffs believe, that the SBI as it stands serves a valuable role while allowing local law enforcement to maintain authority.

GOP lawmakers also want to take the state crime lab, also independent, away from Cooper and move it to Public Safety as well. Should they succeed with these ill-conceived maneuvers, which seem to have less support in the state House, lawmakers would be cutting Cooper’s budget dramatically.

This is not the first time since taking power that Republicans have exhibited a tendency to go beyond an assertion of their authority and move too far in so-called “reforms.”

Cooper has hardly used his office to go full-throttle after Republican lawmakers. Far from it: He has given Democrats many headaches without favor.

So what, then, is the motivation? Lacking any sound reasons for change, there is only one answer. Senate Republicans want to hurt Cooper any way they can in advance of his run for governor. We must hope the cooler heads in the House, who have stopped this foolishness before, will do so again.

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