Law enforcement backs NC attorney general on SBI
RALEIGH — North Carolina’s Democratic attorney general is opposing a state Senate budget provision that moves much of an investigative unit from his department to one headed by an appointee of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Roy Cooper spoke against the idea Monday, alongside police chiefs and prosecutors who also oppose moving the State Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Public Safety, which includes all other law enforcement agencies. Opponents argued the move will inhibit the agency’s independence from the executive branch, but they stopped short of calling it politically motivated.
The SBI assists local law enforcement on specialized crime and pursues public corruption investigations. It is currently under the Attorney General’s Department of Justice.
The Senate’s budget for the next two-year cycle starting July 1 transfers about half of the SBI’s 423 positions to the Department of Public Safety under Secretary Kieran Shanahan, a McCrory appointee. It leaves the state crime lab, a five-person public corruption unit and a number of information technology jobs under the direct control of the attorney general.
State sheriff and police chief associations oppose the change, fearing the new system will invite greater bureaucracy and hurt responsiveness. Gov. McCrory also opposes the move, questioning the necessity.
“We have other operational priorities we need to fix,” said Kim Genardo, McCrory’s communications director.
The budget also adds equipment and 19 new jobs to the crime lab, which came under fire in 2010 following revelations of faulty blood analysis that cast doubt on past convictions. An audit following the release of a convicted murderer from inaccurate blood work turned up more than 200 other cases.
Jim O’Neill, a Republican district attorney in Forsyth County, said the key to improving the agency is leaving it wholly under the attorney general but giving it far more money to retain top-quality personnel and eliminate months-long delays for lab work.
“Unfortunately, in the legislature’s past, a lot of the blame has been unfairly placed on the lab and the agents, and that’s been misplaced and misguided,” he said.
The 75-year-old SBI has investigated more than 500 public officials for various suspected crimes over the past decade, including two Democratic governors, former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black and numerous executive agencies, Cooper said. Housing the agency under a department controlled by the governor runs counter to the SBI’s mission, he added.
“Putting the SBI under any governor’s administration increases the risk that corruption and cover-up occur with impunity,” Cooper said.
But Republican senators argued the unit is better grouped with the rest of the state’s law enforcement divisions to enhance coordination among the agencies. The Republican budget estimates $2 million in savings from the consolidation in its second year.
“It simply does not make sense for the state’s top attorney to supervise the SBI, just like it wouldn’t make sense for your local district attorney to supervise your sheriffs or police,” said House Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow and one of the chamber’s chief budget-writers.
Republicans unsuccessfully pushed to include the SBI in a 2011 reorganization that resulted in the current makeup of the Department of Public Safety.
Brown said the proposal effectively moves the law enforcement personnel functions of the SBI to their rightful place while maintaining roles such as public corruption investigations under the attorney general. He said there was no political motivation.
Colon Willoughby, a Democratic Wake County district attorney, said he doesn’t interpret the proposal as a political power grab, but he also doesn’t think it makes sense.
“I have no idea what the motivation was,” he said. “All I know is that breaking up the SBI and sending the field agents and financial crimes in one direction, keeping the lab in another direction, just seems like terrible management to me,” he said.