Another move afoot to put SBI under governor’s control

05/09/2014 1:07 PM

02/15/2015 11:18 AM

There is another move afoot to transfer the State Bureau of Investigation from the N.C. Department of Justice to the state Department of Public Safety, where several other state law enforcement agencies reside.

Proponents of the idea say it would be more efficient and save money.

But it’s also a highly controversial idea, and was batted down last year for a couple of reasons.

First, keeping the SBI separate from an agency that is under the governor’s control helps ensure independent criminal and public corruption investigations. In fact, there are SBI investigations underway now that involve the administration, the state Department of Public Safety and state legislators, according to Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Second, there are political ramifications. Republicans run the administration, which includes the public safety department. The SBI for more than 75 years has been under the attorney general, who in this case is a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2016.

Cooper recently wrote letters to Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis expressing his strong opposition to a proposed budget provision that would move the SBI.

“Currently, there are sensitive, ongoing investigations such as the Duke Energy coal ash spill at the direction of the U.S. Attorney,” Cooper wrote. “Just as critically, SBI agents are conducting investigations involving legislators and even investigations of the very agency to which this proposal seeks to move the SBI.”

Cooper’s reference to the coal ash investigation is politically freighted. Gov. Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 28 years. Environmentalists involved in legal wrangling with the state allege McCrory and state environmental regulators have been too easy on the utility, which the governor and regulators deny. But a federal grand jury is looking into the company’s relationship to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

McCrory said last year he had no desire to oversee the SBI. Law enforcement and prosecutors have also opposed the idea. Cooper also contends there would be no cost savings.

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican of Wilson who is on the justice and public safety budget-writing committee, said budget discussions are still at the confidential stage. Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Berger, had this to say:

“We will have to wait and see how the budget process plays out – but given the host of problems at the SBI under Roy Cooper’s leadership, we can understand why he is trying to take preemptive steps to stop it from being placed under new oversight.”

The SBI and its insurers agreed to pay nearly $12.5 million in 2013 to two innocent men who spent a total of 31 years behind bar. In one case, a mentally retarded man alleged an agent fabricated his confession in 1993. In the second, a agent in the crime lab failed to report the results of lab tests favorable to a man who spent 17 years in prison; the man has since began declared innocent. In 2009, the SBI and its insurers agreed to pay $3.9 million to a former death row inmate who spent nine years behind bars for a murder he didn't commit.

Last year, the legislature separated the crime lab from the SBI, although both remain under the attorney general’s control. All of those problems were before Cooper office in 2001.

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