A provision in the Senate budget proposal would take the State Bureau of Investigation and its troubled Crime Lab out of the Attorney General's Dept. of Justice, moving both into the new Department of Public Safety.
The Senate subcommittee's organizational chart shows the SBI housed under Law Enforcement in the new agency, along with the State Highway Patrol and Alcohol Law Enforcement. The State Crime Lab would move to the top of the chart, reporting directly to the new Secretary of Public Safety.
The Justice Department's budget would be gutted, falling from $90M to $25M. About half the cut money would follow the transfer of the SBI, the Lab, and law enforcement training facilities into the new DPS.
Senate budget writers say the move would improve public confidence in the independence of the State Crime Lab, which is currently under the authority of the state's top cop, Attorney General Roy Cooper. It's suffered from public perception that it's biased toward law enforcement. (The House budget sought to move the lab out of the Justice Department, too.)
But moving the SBI could actually mean less independence, not more.
Under Section 19.1(b) in the Senate budget, the new Department of Pubic Safety would be led by a Secretary to be appointed by the governor AND confirmed by the legislature – the only secretary in the executive branch who would require lawmakers' stamp of approval as well.
It's the SBI's job to carry out public corruption investigations in both those branches (Easley, Poole, Black, and Wright, just in the past 4 years). Under the current system, the SBI is housed separately from other law enforcement agencies it also might have to investigate, like the State Highway Patrol. And it answers to a state executive office - the Attorney General - that's independently elected, much like the Auditor.
Would having a boss who's politically beholden to the governor and legislative leaders affect the SBI's independence? Attorney General Roy Cooper thinks so.
"You've removed that independence, and you've taken away an important tool in the fight against public corruption, and I think it's outrageous," Cooper told us this afternoon.
More from Cooper, in a written statement:
"The State Bureau of Investigation was established in the Department of Justice as an independent investigative agency. That independence has been vital in allowing agents to work unfettered by pressure or expectations to uncover corruption in the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
"To have the SBI report to an agency head appointed by the governor and approved by legislators puts that freedom to investigate at great risk.”
Here's the letter Cooper sent to Senate leaders, outlining his concerns.