Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and a number of local law enforcement officials from across the state on Monday criticized a Senate proposal to restructure the State Bureau of Investigation.
The Senate budget plan rolled out Sunday night calls for moving most of the SBI from the Department of Justice and placing it under the control of the Department of Public Safety, which is under the control of Gov. Pat McCrory.
"This is bad for law enforcement, public safety and the fight against public corruption," Cooper said in a news conference, where he was flanked by more than a dozen police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys.
The SBI has investigated more than 500 public officials accused of corruption over the last decade, Cooper said, citing the administrations of former Govs. Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue, former House Speaker Jim Black and other lawmakers. He also noted that DPS divisions such as the State Highway Patrol and Department of Correction have also been the targets of corruption investigations, as have other agencies under the governor's control.
"Prosecutors, courts and the public have relied on these investigations because of the SBI's independence," he said. "No matter who controls the state legislature, the Governor's Office or the Attorney General's Office, this system works best."
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said the SBI is the only state law enforcement agency outside DPS, so leaving it in the DOJ "doesn't make sense in the scheme of how law enforcement is organized otherwise."
"Coordination among law enforcement agencies is vital, and housing them within one agency is common sense," Brown said. "It simply does not make sense for our state's top attorney to supervise the SBI, just like it wouldn't make sense for your local district attorney to supervise your sheriff or police."
The Senate plan does leave an SBI unit in the Attorney General's Office to investigate corruption – the state crime lab also would remain in DOJ – but Cooper said it amounts to only four or five agents out of the more than 420 who now work for the agency.
"(That) is a fig leaf that will severely cripple the fight against public corruption," he said, noting agents need to work together statewide on complex financial and political cases.
"Putting the SBI under any governor's administration increases the risk that corruption and cover-up occur with impunity," he said.
McCrory doesn't appear to share the Senate's belief that the switch is needed.
"An argument has yet to be presented to the governor as to why the transfer of the SBI is necessary," spokeswoman Kim Genardo said. "The governor's proposed budget does not ask for the move. We have other operational priorities we need to fix."
Likewise, DPS questions the move.
"The SBI transfer to Public Safety is not something that our agency asked for or lobbied for," DPS spokeswoman Pamela Walker said. "While we are pleased that many of the Senate budget proposals are in alignment with the governor’s budget proposals for Public Safety, there are several areas, like the SBI transfer, that are not in alignment and we feel need further review."
The North Carolina Sheriff's Association and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police also oppose shifting the SBI.
"We see no need to change to change the structure or responsibilities of the organization," said Apex Police Chief John Letteney, who is president of the Association of Chiefs of Police. "It is quite possible that such a move could create a more costly and bureaucratic process."
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said lawmakers should look to increase funding to the state crime lab instead of trying to reorganize the SBI.
"If (the idea) is to save money, that's a noble goal, but we've got to make the lab workable," Willoughby said. "We're waiting months to get drug chemistry back. We're waiting months to get DNA results back, and it's because our lab isn't properly funded."
The crime lab has come under scrutiny in recent years because of questionable practices by evidence analysts. Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, which has pushed for an independent crime lab outside the control of law enforcement, said the Senate proposal doesn't achieve that.
"It doesn't go far enough," Mumma said.
Willoughby and other prosecutors say the plan is misguided and should be abandoned.
"Breaking up the SBI and sending the field agents and financial crimes in one direction and keeping the lab in another direction just seems like terrible management to me," he said. "This to me appears to be a Washington-style solution, where we're in search of a problem to make it fit but there is not a problem."