Fact Check: Was Cooper 'stripped of his responsibility' over crime lab?
Posted September 8, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — There may be no bigger liability on Attorney General Roy Cooper's political ledger than his office's management of the North Carolina State Crime Lab, so it's no surprise the Republican Governors Association seeks to exploit that history in a campaign ad that started running in August.
The RGA is a national group that pipes money into state gubernatorial campaigns. Cooper, a Democrat, is running to unseat Republican Gov. Pat McCrory this fall's general election.
In a companion fact check, we take a more detailed look at the crime lab's history and whether Cooper can claim credit for clearing a backlog of cases.
This fact check looks at specific claims made by the RGA in its ad about the lab, which used to fall under the State Bureau of Investigation.
After spending 20 seconds of sepia-toned review of the lab's problems, a voice-over proclaims, "The state had to take the SBI away from Cooper's management." At the same time, the video on screen shows the phrase, "Stripped of his responsibility over SBI lab."
THE QUESTIONS: Did Cooper lose control of the crime lab? Did the recent move of the SBI from the Department of Justice to the Department of Public Safety have to do with the lab?
SUMMARY JUDGMENT: While there certainly is a history of problems with the crime lab, it's wrong to suggest Cooper no longer oversees it. This spot has us seeing police lights in the rear view mirror.
WHO RUNS THE LAB: The RGA's on-screen text saying Cooper is no longer responsible for the crime lab is clearly wrong. As WRAL News reported when McCrory signed the 2014 budget bill, the SBI's investigators moved to a new department, but Cooper retained control of the lab. That is still the case.
Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the RGA, points to a background document that supports the ad and insisted in an email that the phrase, "The state had to take the SBI away from Cooper’s management" is true.
That doesn't address the on-screen text or the overall context of the ad, which focuses on the crime lab.
WHY DID THE SBI MOVE: Given that the ad is solely focused on the crime lab, the statement that lawmakers "had to take SBI away from Cooper's management" infers that the move had something to do with the crime lab. It would be curious if that were the case since the lawmakers moved everything under the SBI but the crime lab away from Cooper's control.
Republicans in the state Senate floated the idea of moving the SBI from the Department of Justice, which is controlled by Cooper, to the Department of Public Safety, which is overseen by McCrory, almost as soon as they took control of the legislature in 2011. While that original 2011 proposal contemplated moving the lab along with the SBI, subsequent bills in 2013 and 2014 left the lab where it was.
In justifying the move in 2014, lawmakers and the McCrory administration didn't focus on the crime lab. Rather, proponents like DPS Secretary Frank Perry argued that it would allow the state's various law enforcement arms to more easily share information. His department also oversees the State Highway Patrol, the Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement and the State Capitol Police. Perry also pitched the move at the time as a cost-saving measure.
"We could put those into one and save millions," he said. "I don’t think it’s political at all. I think it’s a logical extension of where law enforcement is going. Agencies are not necessarily consolidating, but growing closer and closer post 9/11."
Lawmakers at the time argued they were trying to de-politicize the SBI by making the director a gubernatorial appointment confirmed by the Senate who could not be removed at whim. While an early 2014 Senate version of the budget would have moved the lab along with the SBI, the House did not agree, and it was the House version of the plan that McCrory signed into law.
The RGA's Thompson pointed to news reports from 2011 and 2013 in which lawmakers made reference to the SBI lab's issues.
"The lab has lost some credibility," said Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, as quoted by the Associated Press at the time. "It's not an independent lab. It's underneath the SBI."
The RGA released a second ad focused on the crime lab on Wednesday. That spot focuses on a heretofore unreleased audit, first reported by The News & Observer, criticizing the lab's lack of documentation.
"The truth is that Roy Cooper fixed the problems at the crime lab and continues to oversee this important work as Attorney General – and Governor McCrory knows it," Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said.
Porter also objected to the ads' characterization of the mismanagement issues at the lab, saying the bulk of those findings referred to cases from a time before Cooper took office. We take a closer look at that issue in our companion fact check on Cooper's ad.
THE CALL: It is flat out wrong to suggest that Cooper lost control of the crime lab.
Also, it seems specious to suggest that the SBI's move from Cooper's oversight to a department under McCrory's control had to do with the lab's poor performance, since the facility was the only part of the SBI left under Cooper's oversight. Yes, there have been well-documented problems with the crime lab, which are certainly fair game for election ads and debate. But due to factual inaccuracies, this spot earns a moving violation, the lowest rating on our fact-checking scale.