State’s prosecutors want more tools, powers to fight corruption

Published 11:11 am Monday, February 26, 2007

By Staff
By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press Writer
RALEIGH — When former House Speaker Jim Black entered pleas to both state and federal crimes this month, it was the product of a successful federal-state partnership aimed at rooting out public corruption.
Of course, Willoughby would have preferred to take down the Charlotte-area optometrist without any help. But the feds have a tool he lacks — an investigative grand jury that can call witnesses and compel them to testify.
After Black agreed to be punished on felony bribery and obstruction of justice charges last week, Willoughby again asked lawmakers to give him and other district attorneys in North Carolina the authority to convene such panels. It’s the same request he made three years ago, after Willoughby’s office had to ask federal prosecutors for help in sending former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps to prison.
But even in the wake of Black’s fall from power, it’s unclear whether the General Assembly will expand the power of district attorneys. In the past, opponents have argued that investigative grand juries would give them too much authority.
For two decades, district attorneys in North Carolina have been allowed to convene investigative grand juries only to probe drug trafficking. This year, Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, has proposed expanding that list to include more than 10 other types of crimes, including murder, perjury, bribery and voting irregularities. The juries’ work would be confidential until charges are filed.
A similar proposal — backed by at least 16 other senators — would also make it a felony to lie to a State Bureau of Investigation agent. Federal law already makes it a felony to lie to an FBI agent, putting the SBI at a disadvantage.
A federal investigative grand jury that met for more than a year looked into the ex-speaker’s campaign finances and related areas. Federal prosecutors said grand jurors heard testimony from chiropractors who said they met Black in restaurant bathrooms to give him cash, leading to Black’s guilty plea to a single count of accepting things of value in connection with the business of state government.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said the state’s investigation into Black’s conduct also ‘‘uncovered wrongdoing, but part of working to restore public trust is giving investigators and prosecutors better ways to get at the truth. Better tools to root out wrongdoers will help ensure open and honest government.’’
But lawmakers, particularly Democrats who served under Black while he was the party’s leader in the House, are trying to strike a balance between passing additional laws to help law enforcement and giving new ethics and campaign finance rules enacted last year time to work.
Hackney said he’s focused on finishing new rules to operate the House for the next two years, as well as on more training for colleagues about the state’s new campaign finance rules. ‘‘None of that forecloses additional action,’’ he said.
Rep. Joe Kiser, R-Lincoln, a former sheriff, said that beyond creating an investigative grand jury, lawmakers shouldn’t pass new criminal laws simply as a reaction to the sordid details of Black’s crimes.
Lawmakers ‘‘have a distinct knowledge of what is right and wrong,’’ Kiser said. ‘‘I hope we don’t go overboard, which I think is what happens a lot of the time.’’