A Carolina horror story: re-aligning the SBI

omgI don’t understand what has people — who don’t have a political allegiance aligned with that of Attorney General Roy Cooper — all shaken up about realigning the SBI into the Department of Public Safety.  TONS of other states have a state police force under the command of the governor.    Brown-Nose Rob over at McClatchy sees this proposal currently before the legislature as a serious threat to democracy.

Really?  Ol’ Rob talks about investigators “losing their independence.”  Really?  Roy Cooper has been elected AND re-elected as a Democrat.  How does leaving the SBI under his command — as opposed to consolidating it with Republican Pat McCrory’s Department of Public Safety — make the agency more independent?

Law enforcement agencies all over the United States AND the free western world operate under the command of officials elected in partisan contests.  Those officials are supposed to be the eyes-and-ears of the people who are too busy working and living their lives.

I have some experience with the SBI.  During my time with the drive-by media, I covered the court system and politics — which are not exactly mutually exclusive.  I developed friendships and acquaintances with SBI agents — some of whom are now retired, some who are still with the SBI, and some who are now with other agencies.   I’ve watched the SBI work up-close, and have received lots of inside scoop from these contacts.

The SBI basically works now as a supplement to local law enforcement.  Most local departments do not have the expertise in-house to properly investigate arson, shootings,  murders, financial crimes and other complex cases.  When any of those happen in a locality, one or two agents are sent in to assist the local department.  Quite often, local prosecutors (also elected in partisan contests)  will call in the SBI to probe allegations against public figures.  Agents put together detailed reports that are handed over to the local prosecutors.  The local prosecutors often are the deciding factor as to whether the investigation goes any further.

One of my SBI contacts — a former agent now working elsewhere — agrees with critics’ assessment that the agency is a political police force:

“If the attorney general, or a major figure in the attorney general’s political party wants something to go away, it goes away.  No questions asked.  You salute the flag, and do what you’re told.  The inverse is true as well — if the AG or one of his political cohorts wants someone nailed — it happens.”

I’ll never forget a scoop I uncovered in 1995.  I reported a story where a local police officer alleged that an aide to then-Gov. Jim Hunt tried to shake him down for $2,000 bucks — trading a cash donation to Hunt’s reelection campaign for a state probation job.  The aide quickly “resigned.” The SBI “investigated.” A Democrat DA decided that no charges would be filed.  The governor’s office and the legislature quickly eliminated the controversial aide’s position from the governor’s office budget.

THREE DAYS AFTER I broke this story, I was in the state Board of Elections office in Raleigh doing some research.  While I was there, I witnessed two SBI agents come in the front door, flash their badges, and ask to see a bunch of records from Republican Gov. Jim Martin’s election campaigns.  Interesting timing.  A story hits the statewide media about an aide to Democrat Jim Hunt shaking down an applicant for state employment for a campaign contribution.  Then, out of the blue, you get SBI agents — under the command of then-AG Mike Easley — wanting to look at the campaign files of Hunt’s predecessor, Republican Jim Martin.  I, of course, wrote a story about what I witnessed.  The SBI claimed they wanted Martin’s records for some matter “totally unrelated” to the controversy surrounding the Hunt aide.  Funny. We never heard another word about this “unrelated” investigation.

With ANY government police force, under the supervision of politicians,  there is the potential for corruption.  A strong, skeptical, balanced news media is an important component in protecting us from potential abuses.   It would be nice if we had one of those looking out for us.  

Moving the SBI over to the executive branch is not nearly as radical as the Democrats and their friends in the media would have us believe.   With the SBI at the DPS, we could probably eliminate some bureaucratic redundancies and inefficiencies.  Having law enforcement under one umbrella could create more of a team environment when it comes to investigations.

I think the real story to look at, actually, is the tremendous amount of police power there is in our state.  All of our towns have police officers.  All 100 counties have sheriff’s offices.   The secretary of state and the insurance commissioner have investigators.  The Department of Transportation has the DMV patrol.  The state Department of Labor has investigators.  DENR has the park rangers and wildlife officers.  The Department of Revenue has investigators.  DPS and the ABC board have ALE.  The attorney general, of course, has the SBI.  That’s an awful lot of people with guns, badges, and arrest powers.  That’s an awful lot of cops with different bosses from different political parties with differing agendas.  Why not streamline all of this into one state police force working under a unified command?  

During his entire tenure, Cooper has been a johnny-come-lately to some of the biggest scandals.  He went after Mike Nifong well after the Duke lacrosse case became a national debacle.  The cases against Meg Scott Phipps, Mike Easley, and Jim Black were well underway with the feds before Cooper and the SBI got involved.

Senator Thom Goolsby (R-Wilmington) adds some sanity to this whole hissy- fit:

Attorney General Roy Cooper’s recent dog and pony show was an embarrassment to his office. Cooper had gotten wind that Senate budget writers were planning to transfer the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) from Cooper’s control to the Department of Public Safety (DPS). The long-serving Democrat Attorney General wants to keep the SBI. The best excuse he could make was that he needs the agents to fight public corruption.

Can anyone remember any heavy lifting by Cooper during the investigation of former Governor Mike Easley? What about the investigations of Perdue’s henchmen who recently entered criminal pleas? Cooper, not known as a litigator, needs to come up with a better argument for his case.


He apparently did not read the budget document very carefully, because the agents tasked to the small public corruption section (less than a dozen in number) were left with him. As for the rest of the SBI, they are being sent to DPS where all of the other state law enforcement agencies reside. Word from the agents in the field is that they will be glad to be under DPS Secretary Kieran Shanahan who, unlike Cooper, is a former Assistant United States Attorney and a seasoned prosecutor.

Another thing that Shanahan has going for him is that he has no embarrassing legacy of presiding over multiple fiascoes as does Cooper. This is the same Attorney General who presided over the debacle at the SBI where agents withheld exculpatory evidence or distorted it in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period.


When he’s not committing malfeasance, he’s committing nonfeasance. In other words, Cooper is missing in action whenever hard choices need to be made. Take for instance the recent fight over restarting North Carolina’s death penalty and repealing the ill-named Racial Justice Act. Why wasn’t Cooper at the General Assembly, standing toe to toe with District Attorneys from across the state? He was nowhere to be found. What about the General Assembly’s call for North Carolina to stand with other states fighting the socialized medical mandates of ObamaCare? Cooper said no, he would not help. Yet he was somehow able to find time to oppose North Carolina’s Marriage Amendment, supported by 61% of the citizens.

In the end, we have an Attorney General who is neither a fighter nor a leader — and  not much of an administrator. His justification for keeping the SBI is that he wishes to use it for public corruption cases when less than a dozen agents are assigned to that unit. Cooper personally has no track record of a successful prosecution. In fact, the NC Attorney General has no constitutional authority to prosecute anyone.

Senate budget writers decided to place the SBI with the rest of the state’s law enforcement divisions in order to enhance coordination among the agencies. Significant savings of up to $2 million are expected from consolidation starting in its second year. A chief budget writer and the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Brown (R-Onslow), said it best in an interview with the Associated Press:  “It simply does not make sense for the state’s top attorney to supervise the SBI, just like it wouldn’t make sense for your local district attorney to supervise sheriffs or police.” Sen. Brown, an auto dealer by trade, didn’t need a law degree to come up with his common sense answer.