The sudden departure of the new SBI head shows the flaw in moving the agency

Republican legislators last year removed the State Bureau of Investigation from the Department of Justice, where it had comfortably resided, for one reason and one reason only: Attorney General Roy Cooper was certain to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, and GOP lawmakers wanted to limit his power.

So last year, the SBI was moved to the Department of Public Safety, with Gov. Pat McCrory promising, of course, that the agency would not be politicized and, just to make sure, that the director would have an eight-year term.

Now, the problem with that idea has become clear, as the director McCrory appointed, veteran SBI agent B.W. Collier, has decided to retire early, saying he wants to spend more time with his family. It’s mystifying why Collier would leave so soon after taking his oath of office in July 2015. Didn’t the governor ask the 26-year SBI veteran whether he really wanted to serve another eight years?

The governor now will appoint a new director, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly. It’s hard to imagine the governor won’t be getting pressure from powerful GOP lawmakers to make a choice who first and foremost passes muster with them – and the measure of that muster might not be political independence.

At the time the change was made, Cooper rightly noted that there is a potential for conflict here no matter how long the term of the SBI director. That problem is putting the control of the agency under the executive branch, which might be subject to investigation by the agency. The Department of Public Safety secretary, after all, is appointed by the governor.

And, yes, the conflict already has been evidenced: The SBI has conducted inquiries into contributions that the video sweepstakes industry gave to McCrory and other office-holders. That came after state elections officials with a Republican majority said they couldn’t find any elections law violations on the part of the contributors. The SBI also has investigated the coal ash spill issue involving Duke Energy, a former employer of the governor.

The SBI needs to be independent, and the current structure threatens that independence. Now, with the agency still getting its footing as part of Public Safety, a new director will have to be found, and there is no guarantee that the new director will serve a full eight years.