Special Reports

Some fear SBI task is beyond McLeod

For the past five years, Greg McLeod has pushed Attorney General Roy Cooper's agenda at the General Assembly.

Now, as the new director of the State Bureau of Investigation, McLeod has been given the task of reforming an agency in crisis, a role that differs greatly from cajoling lawmakers into giving funds and writing laws sought by Cooper.

McLeod, 43, has moved quickly in his first week on the job, firing the director of the SBI lab and starting a national search for a replacement, and suspending the work of four blood analysts.

"I need to bring change to this organization," McLeod said in an interview Friday. "I told the attorney general, 'Give me 90 days to restore confidence in the SBI crime lab and make changes.'"

Colleagues at the General Assembly praise McLeod's work ethic and integrity but question whether he is up to changing the culture and practices of an agency with 330 agents, a $12 million forensic lab and a reputation in tatters from a scathing audit and a series of newspaper exposés.

McLeod has never investigated a criminal case. He has never prosecuted or defended a criminal case. And he has no management experience.

That lack of experience makes him the wrong choice, said John Midgette, executive director of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association and a former Raleigh police officer. As a fellow lobbyist, he has known McLeod for years and considers him a nice guy.

"With all due respect, he has no law enforcement experience and not a significant legal foundation," Midgette said. "I don't think he is qualified for the task ahead."

Midgette said the leaders of most major law enforcement agencies have a law enforcement background.

Cooper's defense

Cooper said McLeod's integrity and extensive knowledge of law enforcement issues make him the right choice for the job.

"He has a tireless work ethic and the ability to ask tough questions," Cooper said. "He's task-oriented and efficient at accomplishing goals."

Cooper removed longtime SBI Director Robin Pendergraft in late July and appointed McLeod on the eve of a News & Observer series that revealed deep-seated problems at the agency. The series, "Agents' Secrets," showed that SBI analysts bent rules and pushed past the bounds of science to deliver results pleasing to prosecutors. Agents cheated, twisted the truth and, in some cases, ignored evidence that pointed to a defendant's innocence. On Wednesday, an audit by two former FBI supervisors identified 230 cases potentially botched when lab analysts withheld or misreported the results of blood tests.

Cooper and McLeod have acknowledged that there needs to be a thorough shake-up of the agency's policies, procedures and culture.

Whether or not McLeod succeeds as a turnaround artist, he's likely to approach the job with a friendly and polite manner. He's prone to starting sentences with "sure" and ending them with "thank you." When he refers to his boss, it's always as General Cooper.

Road to the SBI

He grew up in Durham, the son of a doctor and nurse, both Duke graduates. McLeod is a passionate fan of Duke basketball: His father has held season tickets since before McLeod was born.

McLeod said he has always had a keen interest in public service, citing Erskine Bowles' admonition to always add to the community woodpile. After college, he worked as a legislative liaison for Gov. Jim Hunt and then attended law school. After a brief stint with a civil law firm in Greensboro , he joined the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety as a lobbyist and lawyer. In 2003, he joined Cooper's staff, where he has been the chief lobbyist for seven years.

In that role, he worked with defense lawyers, prosecutors, sheriffs, prison lawyers, judges and every other party in the criminal justice system. McLeod said that experience has prepared him for his job.

He said he excels at making good decisions and will identify the strong managers at the SBI to work under him.

His first task is to implement the recommendations in the audit.

Given the problems facing the bureau, not being a prosecutor may be a plus, he said.

"General Cooper has committed to me the use of whatever legal folks I need over here," he said. "Bringing an open mind and a questioning attitude is going to be critical to leadership."

Gregg Stahl manages the state court system as deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. He thinks McLeod's biggest challenge may be outside the agency.

"Agencies are agencies, and you need good oversight and good management," Stahl said. "He's got lots of energy and drive."

But McLeod also needs to restore the agency's credibility in courtrooms across the state, he said.

"There's got to be work done with law enforcement and district attorneys and judges," Stahl said, "to let them know about the damages done and to let them know the problems will be fixed quickly."

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer