It’s no time to tamper with the SBI

June 17, 2014 

Correction: This editorial originally called on the state Board of Elections to launch an investigation. The board has already done so.

Members of the General Assembly make laws, but they are not above them. At least, that used to be the case. But the Republican-led General Assembly’s proposal to move the State Bureau of Investigation despite its active investigation into political contributions raises doubts.

GOP leaders are intent on moving the law enforcement agency despite the disclosure last week that the SBI is months into an investigation that involves political contributions to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Thom Tillis and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Democrats also received some of the suspect contributions from the video sweepstakes industry.

It’s obvious that politicians ought not tamper with an agency that is investigating contributions to them. But Berger, at least, sees it as just the opposite. The disclosure of the SBI investigation, he says, shows that Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is leaking information to stop the SBI from being yanked out of his Department of Justice and put under the Department of Public Safety, an agency headed by an appointee of the governor.

Berger thinks the public surfacing of the investigation means the SBI is advancing the agenda of Cooper, a statewide elected Democrat who plans to run for governor in 2016.

“I think the fact the Attorney General brings this (investigation) up ... at this time just, again, illustrates the reason why we probably need to make the move,” Berger said. “Because that strikes me that is a political pronouncement on his part.”

Cooper’s office cites the investigation as proof that the SBI needs to be independent of the administration to be an unfettered watchdog for corruption in the capital.

There is no evidence of political motivation on Cooper’s part in the launching of the probe or its disclosure. The investigation was opened by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina and has been joined by the Wake County district attorney. The state Board of Elections also has launched an investigation.

The Republican cure for the SBI’s alleged vulnerability to political pressure is to put the SBI under the control of a secretary who owes his job to the governor. The SBI director, however, would have an eight-year appointment that Republicans say would insulate him or her from political pressure. They also say moving the SBI would conform to common practice in other states where the state police chief is appointed by the governor.

That the change in departments would make the SBI more political, not less, is made clear by the GOP’s insistence on moving it despite the current investigation. Were independence and common organizational designs the only motives, Republican lawmakers would simply wait for the sweepstakes investigation to conclude before making the change. And the fact that having an elected Attorney General running state investigations isn’t the norm shouldn’t necessarily work against it. Historically, the state attorneys general have a strong record of enforcement against Democrats and Republicans alike. That may be one reason North Carolina has enjoyed relatively clean government while some states where the governor appoints the head of the leading investigation agency have been scandal-plagued.

In the interest of appearances, if nothing else, Republicans should withdraw or postpone their plan. If they go ahead, they will skew the investigation and create doubts about its thoroughness.

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