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Don’t steal critical role from SBI

In 2009, agents from the State Bureau of Investigation joined the FBI in a probe of land deals made by former Gov. Mike Easley, plus free flights and vehicles he received when in office. A year later, SBI agents investigated dozens of unreported flights by the campaign of then Gov. Bev Perdue.

Before that, the SBI helped build successful corruption cases against former House Speaker Jim Black and former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, both of whom were sent to federal prison.

Easley, Perdue, Black and Phipps are Democrats. Each of their corruption investigations were politically costly to the state party. Would the SBI have conducted those probes, especially those connected to Easley and Perdue, if the agency were under control of the governor? That’s exactly the scenario that Senate Republicans are proposing in their latest budget.

For the third time since taking control of the legislature, Republicans are trying to shift control of the SBI from the attorney general to the governor. The Senate’s budget, announced Thursday, would move the SBI and the State Crime Lab from the Department of Justice to the Department of Public Safety. That would deplete Justice, which is overseen by Attorney General Roy Cooper. Public Safety is run by an appointee of the governor, Pat McCrory.

It’s not inconsequential that Cooper, a Democrat, is running for governor in 2016 against McCrory, a Republican.

It’s worth noting, too, that the SBI currently is assisting federal investigators with a probe of coal ash ponds that involves McCrory’s environmental regulatory agency. The SBI also is conducting investigations that involve the Department of Public Safety.

Those investigations could be jeopardized by putting the SBI under the governor’s control. At the least, doing so would raise troubling questions about the agency’s independence in conducting critical checks on other branches of state government. Having the governor appoint a director for eight years instead of four, as the Senate is proposing, does little to erase those questions.

As for the crime lab, Cooper protests that there’s little to gain by moving it from one law enforcement agency to another. We agree, in part. The crime lab, which was plagued with significant problems in past years, should be independent of all law enforcement agencies, as recommended by forensic science experts.

McCrory, who opposed the SBI shift last year, said last week that he now doesn’t have a problem with moving the agency and crime lab. That’s fueling speculation that the merger is political punishment for Cooper, even though the SBI move was initially proposed by Republicans long before Cooper declared his candidacy against the governor.

Still, we wonder why McCrory would give his potential opponent such potent political ammunition. Cooper can and will wonder why the governor has changed his mind about the SBI now that the agency is investigating parts of the McCrory administration. It looks bad because it is bad, and lawmakers should drop the idea – again.

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