Local News

State Prosecutors Pushing for More Investigative Power

Posted February 21, 2007 9:04 p.m. EST

— When former House Speaker Jim Black bowed to the corruption charges against him, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby did not celebrate.

He complained at how hamstrung he and state agents were in building a case.

State prosecutors say in cases like the Black investigation that shortcoming is two fold: First, unlike with federal agents, it is not a felony to lie to an SBI agent.

"They often have problems getting witnesses to tell them the truth," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

Cooper says that happened in the corruption cases that brought down former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and Congressman Frank Balance. Sometimes, the SBI must bring in federal agents to send a warning.

The second issue is investigative grand juries. Federal investigators can subpoena witnesses to tell what they know. State prosecutors want that same power.

"An investigative grand jury used properly and used sparingly, but used in cases where you need them, can root out public corruption and bring justice in a fairer and faster way," Cooper said.

Defense attorney Karl Knudsen points out that prosecutors won major corruption cases without the added tools. He worries power and politics could taint the system.

"The potential for abuse is there, and again, it's not needed right now," Knudsen said.

"It could theoretically lead to what we call fishing expeditions," he added.

Prosecutors object. They want lawmakers, not federal agents, to help them do their jobs.

"Hopefully, they'll give us tools to allow the state to clean up its own house rather than having to ask federal officials to come in and do this for us," Willoughby said.