Raleigh, N.C. — House Republican leaders fought off a proposal by members of their own caucus Wednesday to leave the State Bureau of Investigation under the Attorney General's Office.
The House and Senate budgets both move the SBI out of the office to the Department of Public Safety, putting the investigative agency under the authority of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has been a vocal critic of Republican legislators and who is widely expected to challenge McCrory for governor in 2016, is opposed to the move. His office has argued repeatedly that the SBI should remain independent of the governor and state lawmakers.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, a member of House leadership, offered an amendment in the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that would reverse the proposed move and "leave the SBI where it is."
"They need the independence and don’t want to feel like they're part of the Department of Public Safety – people they might have to investigate," Stevens said.
Many on the panel supported Stevens' amendment.
"We're really politicizing this agency" by moving it to DPS, said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.
Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, a former prosecutor, said the move would harm the public perception of the SBI.
"It’s imperative that the public have confidence in our judicial system," Reives said.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said no one outside the legislature requested the move.
"We weren’t asked to do this. There’s no reason to do this. There’s no impetus to do this," Glazier said. “When no one in the judicial system or law enforcement system was asking for this change, it strikes me as something that we ought not be doing.”
"I still have not heard any good reasons for transferring this," agreed Rep. Michael Speciale, R-New Bern. "They appear to be effective. They’ve been doing what they’re doing for years."
Speciale argued lawmakers were transferring too many functions to DPS as it is.
"It’s making me nervous. I believe we’re building a little fiefdom over there, a little kingdom," he warned.
But most members of House leadership opposed Stevens' amendment, defending the move as a matter of budget efficiency.
Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said the SBI under DPS would be "as independent as it's ever been," pointing out that the director would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by state lawmakers to an eight-year term and could not be removed from that office.
Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, said the move would be "good financial practice," allowing the SBI to share resources with other law enforcement agencies.
The amendment failed, 37-50, despite support from several Republicans, including House Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam.
Shortly before the amendment was introduced, the Attorney General's Office confirmed that the SBI is investigating campaign donations from the video sweepstakes industry to North Carolina elected officials.
Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley said the investigation began in 2013, prompted by requests from state and federal prosecutors. She said the elected officials who are under investigation have been informed of that fact.
McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger have all confirmed to WRAL News that they have not received any such notification.
All three politicians received campaign donations from Oklahoma sweepstakes programmer Chase Burns, who was later charged with criminal activity in Florida. All three contributed Burns' donations to charity.