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Who should be in charge of the SBI?



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May 29, 2013
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.

Click here for an audio version of this column.

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.

Cooper was made aware of the problems as early as 2005, when he was pressed by activists and the media to look into the case of Floyd Brown. Somehow the mentally disabled Brown, who could not recite the alphabet past the letter K, was able to give SBI investigators a confession detailing how he murdered an elderly woman in his neighborhood. After 14 years in a mental institution, Brown was exonerated in 2007. For his part, Cooper never bothered to order an investigation into the case until 2009. Even then, he only did so in face of a lawsuit.

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.

The fact is that Roy Cooper doesn't deserve the SBI just because he wants it. Instead, the hard working SBI agents deserve a place with the rest of the state's law enforcement in order to be fully utilized and the people of North Carolina deserve to save $2 million a year.

Thom Goolsby is a state senator, practicing attorney and law professor. He is a co-chair of Judiciary 1 and Justice and Public Safety Appropriations committees.

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