Raleigh, N.C. — The state Senate's top leader says Attorney General Roy Cooper could be using a probe of campaign donations by sweepstakes company owners to his own political advantage.
As first reported by the Associated Press on Wednesday, Cooper's office says that elected officials are targets of an investigation into whether donations from sweepstakes corporations illegally made their way into the campaign accounts of state officials. North Carolina law bans corporations from contributing to campaigns.
Word of the story leaked as House lawmakers were debating their version of a $21 billion state budget. Part of that bill would move the State Bureau of Investigation from the control of the attorney general to a department under the supervision of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Cooper, a Democrat, has vigorously opposed that move, saying it would subject investigations to political whim.
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory both said through spokesmen that they were unaware of the probe until asked about it by reporters.
In an interview, Berger said he too had no idea that the SBI was investigating elected officials with relation to the sweepstakes story.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper, has said, "Those who are subjects are aware of the investigation." She added that the SBI was conducting its investigation at the behest of the Wake County District Attorney.
Berger said the timing of the inquiry's announcement was troubling.
"It's problematic, it seems to me, that he says that we shouldn't be moving it to keep politics from influencing, and yet he seems to be injecting what some would see as politics in the decision-making process," he said of Cooper.
Spreading word of the probe, he said, seemed calculated to make it politically sensitive for lawmakers to make the SBI move.
"The fact that he has brought this up seems to substantiate the need for us to do exactly what the Senate called for us to do," Berger said.
When asked if the timing of the report on the SBI investigation was politically motivated, Talley said she frequently provides similar confirmation of investigations in process.
"This is certainly an example of the type of case that could be jeopardized by a move that calls the SBI's independence into question," she said. "As in this case, (district attorneys) and U.S. attorneys rely on an independent SBI to investigate public corruption. They don't want the SBI to answer to the very people they may be investigating or who may have had a part in legislative confirmation of their director."
But Berger said that the Senate budget provision, which is similar to one in the House bill, would provide for the SBI's director to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate for a set term.
"That actually will provide us with a better insulation from politics than the current situation where the head of the SBI is appointed by and serves at the whim of the attorney general," he said.
McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said the governor believed any plan to change the SBI's oversight should aim to keep politics out of investigations. He added that district attorneys and the Attorney General's Office would still be able to refer matters to the SBI if it is moved.
"We are not aware that there are any plans to change the process by which investigations can be requested or limit the rights of local law enforcement to request assistance," Ellis said.
The State Board of Elections is also conducting an investigation into campaign donations by members of the sweepstakes industry. "We are in the final stages of a thorough investigation and await a concluding report by incoming senior investigator Chuck Stuber. Despite limited resources, our Agency’s investigation has involved over 160 interviews," SBOE spokesman Josh Lawson said.