State Politics

Josh Stein cuts 45 positions in AG’s office: ‘We can’t do the last third’

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced on Thursday that he has eliminated 45 positions in the state Department of Justice after the state budget adopted earlier this summer included a surprise $10 million budget cut.

At a news conference the same morning the General Assembly returned to Raleigh for a special session, Stein announced that state agencies, commissions and boards had come up with another $3 million or so that would stave off some personnel cuts he had anticipated. But Stein still has to find $3 million more in savings, he said, adding, “we’ve cut the attorney general’s office into the bone and we cannot go deeper.”

“What I’m telling you today is, we can’t do the last third,” said Stein, a Democrat in his first term. “The last third will put too much damage, too much risk on the public’s safety. For that reason, we are repeating our call to the General Assembly: ‘Please, protect the people of North Carolina, and find a way to fill this gap.’ 

With two district attorneys by his side along with representatives from law-enforcement organizations that have asked the General Assembly to reconsider its cuts, Stein said lawmakers’ actions would force his office to shift some of the work his attorneys had done on criminal appeals back to district attorneys.

The attorney general’s office will shift the responsibility for appeals of misdemeanor crimes and revoked probation to prosecutors, but continue to handle appeals on driving-while-impaired cases that can be complicated and have sweeping effects on other cases.

“We are not at this point handing over any cases where there is a criminal behind bars,” Stein said. “The office of attorney general will continue to prioritize keeping people safe, but we simply do not have the capacity to handle the hundreds and hundreds of appeals that we get every year when our budget is being cut by $10 million.”

Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb, who was at the news conference with Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, said prosecutors who are more focused on working at trials would face new hurdles handling appeals.

“I think this is going to be a seismic shift for our offices,” Robb said. “Right now, we are on the front lines. We are trial attorneys. We are not appellate attorneys. ... Anything that takes us away from those primary responsibilities is dangerous if we’re not adequately funded.”

Legislative leaders didn’t call Stein’s office, he said, to talk about a proposal that showed up only in the final version of the state budget after not being included in either the state House or Senate spending plans.

After lawmakers approved the budget in June, Senate leader Phil Berger defended the cut, saying he did not think it would be as devastating as portrayed by Stein, who served alongside Berger when he was a state senator from Wake County. Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, added that GOP leaders were not happy with how Stein has been doing his job.

“The attorney general’s job is to represent his client, and his client is the state of North Carolina, and in many respects, it’s the state of North Carolina as represented by the elected representatives of the state,” Berger said at a June 22 news conference. “There have been instances where the attorney general seems to believe that that’s not his job, that his job is to do whatever he thinks is appropriate.”

The budget lines that specified the cuts were so targeted that Stein estimated at one point that he might have to cut 123 full-time employees from his team of attorneys, technology support staff and human resources staff. Stein said he talked with legislative leaders, urging them to reconsider the cuts with a technical amendment to the budget, but was unsuccessful. Then he contacted state agencies such as the UNC system, state treasurer’s office, Office of Administrative Hearings and boards and commissions that the attorney general’s office has assisted with legal counsel over the years to see if they had money in their budgets that could go toward some of the attorneys’ work.

On Thursday, Stein said the agencies and commissions had offered funds that could save 40 positions, but he declined to identify which agencies they were.

Stein brushed back the criticism from Republican legislators and party officials about his job performance, noting that he was elected to a statewide office.

“I’m the attorney general of North Carolina and I was elected by the people of this state to be their attorney general,” Stein said. “My duty is to serve the state and protect the people and that’s what I do every day and that’s what I will continue to do from this day forward.”

Stein said child support and sex offender cases could be delayed because of cuts to his attorney staff. Among those who were laid off were three lawyers “with vast knowledge of handling criminal appeals of convicted child sex offenders,” Stein said. One attorney had 30 years of experience “protecting the quality of water we drink.” Others helped with claims of negligence that could leave the state vulnerable to lawsuits, Stein contended, or were experts on tobacco cases that bring “hundreds of millions of dollars” into North Carolina coffers each year.

Gerald Robbins, a 60-year-old Raleigh resident who has worked in the attorney general’s office for 23 years, was among those who received a letter on Wednesday ending his employment.

Robbins spent much of the past 15 years on child-support cases. He said the cuts by the General Assembly could have a “chilling effect” on how the attorneys work for the state in the future.

“There always will be a fear factor come budget time in this office,” Robbins said.

Tim Moore, speaker of the state House, responded to Stein’s layoff plan with criticism and a hint that lawmakers might have more changes in store for the head of the state Department of Justice.

“We believe the resources are there for the attorney general to fully take care of the criminal issues in North Carolina. We also believe that some of the civil work the attorney general’s office does can be moved to those other agencies,” Moore said in a video posted to Twitter by his spokesman. “So the last thing the attorney general needs to do is to do anything that impedes with the criminal justice process. He has adequate resources, very adequate resources to take care of those issues. We will be looking at legislation, if necessary later on, to further refine the attorney general’s duties in relation to that.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1