SBI move concerns local officials

Published 3:14 pm Saturday, June 8, 2013

The budget recently passed by the North Carolina Senate proposes some sweeping changes — dumping 40 percent of lottery funds previously used for school construction into the General Fund, commandeering massive payouts from tobacco companies intended for the rural economic development machine of the Golden LEAF Foundation, among them. But many believe the most puzzling aspect of the budget is the move of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation from the Department of Justice to the Department of Public Safety, a restructuring proposal made without any public committee meetings or hearings.

The change would essentially split the SBI: the state lab and five investigators designated for corruption cases would stay within DOJ. All other operations would move.

For law enforcement agencies, the shift represents another layer of bureaucracy that will likely hinder the SBI’s rapid response to local requests for assistance, according to Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan.

The Department of Public Safety already serves as an umbrella agency for the State Highway Patrol, Alcohol Law Enforcement, Department of Corrections, Department of Juvenile Justice, National Guard, Emergency Management and more.

“Like most sheriffs, I oppose it. It will tend in the long run to move toward a state police and greater bureaucracy,” Jordan said. “What they (the SBI) provide to local, small forces is assistance — for drug investigations, arsons, for any investigations where we request assistance.

“Does it mean we’re marching toward a state police? When you need something, you’d better call Raleigh?” he asked. “Law enforcement is more effective when it’s local.”

For others, a restructuring could mean risking the autonomy of the SBI by making it directly answerable to the governor and the Secretary of Public Safety appointed by the governor, potentially politicizing the agency.

“To me, the best thing about the SBI is that they, essentially, are an independent agency,” said 2nd Judicial District Attorney Seth Edwards, adding that with a move to Public Safety, “There is a great potential for a conflict of interest. Even if there’s not an actual conflict of interest, but there’s a perceived one, that erodes public confidence.”

“It gives them the unenviable task of investigating the same people they have to ask for money,” Jordan said, referring to the SBI’s role in investigating public corruption and election law violations, a role that has prompted North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to publicly state his opposition.

“No matter who controls the state legislature, the governor’s office or the attorney general’s office, this system works best,” Cooper said in a press release. “Putting the SBI under any governor’s administration increases the risk that corruption and cover-up occur with impunity.”

Over the past decade, SBI agents have investigated more than 500 public officials, including the past two governors’ administrations, a House speaker, legislators, and officials in the Public Safety agencies — Highway Patrol, Corrections and Juvenile Justice — and other Executive Branch agencies.

Cooper described a small unit left under DOJ to investigate those cases represent “a fig leaf that will severely cripple the fight against public corruption.”

“Four or five agents are not near enough to handle corruption cases,” Edwards agreed.

Both Edwards and Jordan said the transfer “just doesn’t make sense,” a viewpoint Republican Governor Pat McCrory shares. McCrory said last month he had personally never asked for authority over the SBI to be transferred to the Executive Branch and he didn’t “see a need to do it.”

Some opponents of restructuring have called into question the Senate’s motives, claiming it’s no more than a power grab by the Republican-majority Senate. Cooper, under whose authority the SBI falls, is the state’s highest elected Democratic official.

Senator Bill Cook (R-Beaufort), however, believes the motives are simple: money.

“I think it’s an efficiency move,” Cook said. “I wasn’t real concerned about it to begin with. I’m not passionate about the issue in any sense.

“I’d like to be on the same page as the Governor but you know Republicans tend to be individualistic and we all think for ourselves. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to him about this issue. Maybe he’s got some better reasons for not supporting it. I don’t know.”

For many, the $2 million in savings projected for year two of the restructuring — $2 million of the $1.7 billion budgeted for Public Safety — represents a further defunding of an already underfunded agency.

“I’ve never had a complaint about the SBI per se,” Edwards said. “The agents are great. The problem is they don’t have enough people to do the work.”

Both the sheriff’s office and the District Attorney’s office rely heavily on the SBI for the processing of evidence, but because of the agency’s limited resources and a backlog of evidence, have to wait as long as 18 months to see lab results returned.

“Rather than be diminished, I would much rather see them supported,” Jordan said. “We pale in comparison to neighboring states for funding. Instead of slowing them down, let’s look at ways we can fund them and enhance their abilities.”