McCrory vs. Cooper: The Prelims

And now the fun begins
N.C. Department of Justice

Republican legislators and the N.C. Department of Justice are arm-wrestling for control of the State Bureau of Investigation as the General Assembly starts its 2014 short session.

The struggle reveals something about how power-mad the legislature is—and a clue about how the 2016 governor’s race will play out: nastily.

Attorney General Roy Cooper is Pat McCrory’s likely Democratic opponent for governor. The attorney general and governor have clashed more than once over the past year—once over the state’s defense against the U.S. Justice Department’s suit challenging the 2013 voter ID law, and again over whether consumers would bear the cost of coal ash cleanup.

Now, there’s a tussle over the SBI, the state law enforcement and investigative agency that’s been under the attorney general’s control since its founding in 1937. So why change?

From Craig Jarvis at the N&O:

Proponents of the idea say it would be more efficient and save money.

But it’s also a highly controversial idea, and was batted down last year for a couple of reasons.

First, keeping the SBI separate from an agency that is under the governor’s control helps ensure independent criminal and public corruption investigations. In fact, there are SBI investigations underway now that involve the administration, the state Department of Public Safety and state legislators …

Second, there are political ramifications. Republicans run the administration, which includes the public safety department …

Cooper recently wrote letters to Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis expressing his strong opposition to a proposed budget provision that would move the SBI.

“Currently, there are sensitive, ongoing investigations such as the Duke Energy coal ash spill at the direction of the U.S. Attorney,” Cooper wrote. “Just as critically, SBI agents are conducting investigations involving legislators and even investigations of the very agency to which this proposal seeks to move the SBI.”

Cooper’s reference to the coal ash investigation is politically freighted. Gov. Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 28 years. Environmentalists involved in legal wrangling with the state allege McCrory and state environmental regulators have been too easy on the utility, which the governor and regulators deny. But a federal grand jury is looking into the company’s relationship to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

In his May 1 letters to Tillis and Berger, Cooper refers to “the proposed budget provision” that would transfer the SBI to Public Safety. If the secrecy of the provision wasn’t a big enough “tell,” dig this:

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican of Wilson who is on the justice and public safety budget-writing committee, said budget discussions are still at the confidential stage. Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Berger, had this to say:

“We will have to wait and see how the budget process plays out—but given the host of problems at the SBI under Roy Cooper’s leadership, we can understand why he is trying to take preemptive steps to stop it from being placed under new oversight.”

The SBI and its insurers agreed to pay nearly $12.5 million in 2013 to two innocent men who spent a total of 31 years behind bar[s]. In one case, a mentally retarded man alleged an agent fabricated his confession in 1993. In the second, an agent in the crime lab failed to report the results of lab tests favorable to a man who spent 17 years in prison; the man has since [been] declared innocent. In 2009, the SBI and its insurers agreed to pay $3.9 million to a former death row inmate who spent nine years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit …

All of those problems were before Cooper [took] office in 2001.

So that’s how it’s going to be. There’s no practical reason for the SBI to move out from under the attorney general—who is, after all, the state’s top law enforcement official and therefore the logical choice to oversee the state’s primary law enforcement agency.

Berger’s response—“the host of problems at the SBI under Roy Cooper’s leadership”—effectively gives the game away. McCrory’s in a desperate situation, according to the polls, so he and his political allies might as well start stacking the deck, and showing their hand, early. We have two-and-a-half years of this to look forward to.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest