Commentary

Christensen: SBI scenario recalls Hagan’s decision on Holding

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 14, 2014 

When Democrat Barack Obama took office in January 2009, U.S. Attorney George Holding of Raleigh was investigating two of the biggest Democrats in North Carolina – former U.S. Sen. John Edwards and former Gov. Mike Easley.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees, and they are routinely replaced when administrations change. Holding, a former aide and protégé of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, had been appointed lead federal prosecutor by GOP President George W. Bush in 2006. (He succeeded another Republican U.S. attorney, Frank Whitney, who had been appointed to the federal bench.)

Such political patronage positions are heavily influenced by a state’s senators. Newly elected Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was in a quandary, wanting to name a Democrat to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but not wanting to appear as if she was trying to politically interfere with the investigation of Edwards and Easley.

After conferring with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Hagan recommended Thomas Walker, a veteran prosecutor from Charlotte, for the job, but agreed to allow Holding to stay in office until he concluded his investigations.

Holding stayed at his post for 2-1/2 years under Obama, resigning in July 2011. Shortly afterward, Holding announced he would run for Congress, winning his seat, in part, based on his record as a tough, corruption-busting prosecutor.

Edwards was found not guilty of charges that he illegally used $1 million in campaign funds to hide his mistress, and a mistrial was declared on related charges. Easley accepted an Alford plea to a state campaign finance charge involving not reporting the use of a campaign helicopter. (An Alford plea means he did not admit guilt but acknowledged there was sufficient evidence to convict him of a crime.)

Walker, who among other things was a former special counsel to Attorney General Roy Cooper, became U.S. attorney in 2011.

SBI maneuvers

Which brings us to Cooper.

The Republican-controlled legislature is now considering legislation that would remove the State Bureau of Investigation from the control of the independently elected attorney general, who is a Democrat, where it has been from its inception in 1937. The legislature wants to move it to the Department of Public Safety, which is under the control of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

Cooper’s office has noted that the SBI is in the midst of a criminal investigation into campaign contributions from the video sweepstakes industry. The industry sent $700,000 to North Carolina political candidates from 2010 until 2013, according to Democracy North Carolina.

The biggest recipient was House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is seeking to unseat Hagan in November. Tillis received $127,000, followed by McCrory and Senate leader Phil Berger.

Any hopes the donors had of legalizing video gambling in the state again fell by the wayside because of scandal. The major donor from the industry was Chase Burns, an executive for an Internet sweepstakes company, who last year pleaded no contest in Florida to two criminal counts involving a lottery and forfeited $3.5 million in profits.

It should be noted that so far there has been no evidence of any wrongdoing by Tillis, McCrory or Berger. But the SBI is investigating.

Independent or not?

McCrory and others say there are sufficient safeguards to protect the SBI’s independence if it is moved to the administration. That may be so, just as it is quite possible that if Walker had been named U.S. attorney shortly after Obama was elected, he would have pursued Edwards and Easley just as aggressively as Holding.

But here is a question for you, dear reader. If you are a Republican, do you believe that a Democratic federal prosecutor would have vigorously investigated Edwards and Easley? And if you are a Democrat, do you believe the SBI will get to the bottom of the sweepstakes investigation under the McCrory administration?

Berger says that Cooper is talking about the sweepstakes investigation for political reasons, as a way to stave off the legislature’s effort to shift the SBI to the McCrory administration. That is almost certainly true. But just as assuredly, there are political motivations behind the legislature’s effort to move the SBI, because Cooper is likely to challenge McCrory for governor in 2016.

In 2009, Hagan showed her independence by allowing a conservative Republican prosecutor to stay on the job to continue investigating two of the state’s most prominent Democrats. It is not far-fetched to say that the investigations and publicity damaged the Democrats and helped Republicans gain control of state government.

Now we will see how the Republicans handle a similar question.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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