SBI move looks political

Jun. 05, 2014 @ 08:15 AM

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety employs more than 26,000 people. It runs prisons, the Highway Patrol, emergency management services, juvenile detention facilities, Alcohol Law Enforcement, the Capitol police and the National Guard. Can it add the State Bureau of Investigation?

The state Senate's budget would do that, shifting the SBI from the Department of Justice to Public Safety.

This is not just bureaucratic paper-shuffling. Public Safety is part of the governor's administration. Justice is directed by the elected attorney general.

Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is likely to run against Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016. So an action by the Republican-led Senate to move a prominent agency from Cooper's jurisdiction to McCrory's has political implications.

"I'm not going to assess any motives on their part," Cooper said last week. He said he objects because the SBI, often called on to investigate executive agencies and the legislature, operates with more independence in the Department of Justice than it would under the governor's control.

The difference might be subtle, he said. If the SBI, working with a district attorney or U.S. attorney, were investigating a top official in the governor's administration, someone there might withhold resources or reassign the best investigators.

Cooper said he also worries that the SBI could become part of an "overwhelming state police force" that could override the authority of local police and sheriff's departments. Currently, the SBI only assists local agencies when asked.

Those are real concerns. But political arguments cut both ways. Could an attorney general use the SBI against a governor for political reasons? Anything seems possible.

The SBI has been attached to the Department of Justice for 75 years, so it's important to make sure it could operate more effectively in some other structure. If there's no compelling argument from an administrative standpoint, then this just looks like a political move.