Raleigh, N.C. — The state Senate budget would move the agency responsible for investigating government corruption from the Department of Justice, overseen by the attorney general, to a department run by the governor.
The State Bureau of Investigation is one of the few statewide law enforcement agencies, such as the Highway Patrol and Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement, that doesn't already report directly to Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday that the move would save money through bulk purchases, shared training and streamlined administration.
But Democrats criticized the move, saying that it would "politicize" the agency, putting it under the purview of the same executive branch it may be called upon to investigate.
"We want to have an agency independent of the governor investigating allegations of corruption in state government," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. "It is a major restructuring of state government that affects public safety."
Stein argued that such a big move should have been considered outside the budget.
Attorney General Roy Cooper is a Democrat who will likely run for governor in 2016.
Goolsby said that conflict of interest fears are unfounded. Other states, he said, place their lead law enforcement agency under the governor's office.
"What we've tried to do is completely de-politicize the SBI," he said.
In addition to transferring the agency, the Senate budget would also change the way the SBI's director is appointed. The proposal calls for the governor to appoint the director to a 10-year term, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly. After the confirmation, the governor could not fire the director.
"He would be totally independent," Goolsby said of a director appointed under such as scheme.
Cooper called arguments that moving the SBI to DPS would promote efficiency "bogus."
"It's clear that this is political," he said. "It's pretty clear that what they're trying to do is trade away the independence of the SBI and potentially protect themselves."
A similar plan to transfer the SBI faced opposition from law enforcement groups such as the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association and the Conference of District Attorneys. There's no indication those groups have changed their minds.
"The Sheriffs' Association prefer that it (the SBI) stay where it is," said Eddie Caldwell, the association's executive director. "A lot of the case they get called upon to investigate involve agencies of state government."
Also, he said, any meaningful cost savings would come from consolidating positions.
"The SBI doesn't need less personnel, it needs more," Caldwell said.
McCrory also resisted the move last year, saying it was too big a move to make as he grappled with other problems. Asked about the potential for the move Thursday, McCrory said he was studying the issue but was less hostile to the possibility.
"What I’m looking for is what’s most efficient and effective, and that’s where I’m studying the plans right now," he said. "I’m going to be getting input from my Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry, a former FBI official, who is heading up the policy now."
As for the potential for a conflict of interest, McCrory dismissed that idea.
"Based on my discussion with other governors, that’s not an issue I have with that," he said. "Frankly, there could be conflict of interest with the attorney general, who is an elected position. ... By the way, we have other public safety organizations under my responsibility now, and one thing I’ve done is, we keep the politics out of all investigations, whether they be criminal or otherwise."