Politics at the NC SBI? (NOT a shocker.)

It’s more than eye-rolling humorous to see the shock and dismay exhibited by Raleigh Republicans over the suggestion that politics runs the state’s top law enforcement agency.  They’ve launched an investigation.  Panties are in a wad over at John Locke.  I figured out how politically-tainted the SBI is, nearly 30 years ago.

I was just a wee young drive-by media type at the time.  I began to notice how often SBI investigations produced results pleasing to the governor (usually a Democrat), the attorney general (usually a Democrat), and other Democrat political operatives.   It was easy to make comparisons between the SBI and the East German Stasi, The Gestapo, or the KGB. They’re ALL political police forces.  In their work, politics is the guiding rule and usually trumps the rule of law.

In 1995, I broke a story about a close aide to then-Gov. Jim Hunt apparently selling state jobs in exchange for contributions to Hunt’s 1996 reelection campaign.  Not long after that story broke, I and a professional associate – who happened to be an ex-cop — were camped out at the state board of elections offices in Raleigh reviewing campaign files.  (This was in the EARLY days of the Internet.)  While we were there, we witnessed two SBI agents approach the reception desk, flash their badges, and ask to see former Governor Jim Martin’s campaign files.  (At the time, Martin was the most recent Republican to have held the governor’s office.).

It was certainly interesting timing.  The incumbent Democrat governor is hit with a scandal, and the SBI suddenly shows a keen interest in the campaign files of the most recent former GOP governor. 

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some good people working for the SBI.  There are good people AND bad people in that organization, just like in most any other organization.  Unfortunately, the shot-callers at the SBI are way too often at the beck-and-call of Raleigh politicos.

I once asked a good friend, who was then a special agent with the SBI, about just how political things are at the agency.  Here’s what he told me:

“If the governor wants something to happen, it happens.  If the governor wants something to go away, it goes away.  If the attorney general wants something to happen, it happens.  If he doesn’t want it to happen, it doesn’t.  The same goes for their close friends and allies.  Yes, I’d say politics is a HUGE factor in this job.”

Mixing politics with anything is usually a bad, toxic idea.  Especially if you’re mixing it with law enforcement or the military.  Those two communities need to go out of their way to communicate that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and friends and foes of powerful elected officials ALL get treated equally.

But stop acting like political meddling at the SBI is some kind of stunner.  It’s been around for more than three decades.  

We don’t need any more media events disguised as legislative hearings.  We need serious action proposed and implemented that protects the agency’s employees and the subjects of SBI probes from political intimidation.

Granted, I don’t know how you root out and eliminate political mischief when elected politicians appoint the director and senior leaders.