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Gov. McCrory defends removing SBI control from attorney general

Gov. Pat McCrory defended transferring control of the State Bureau of Investigation from the N.C. Attorney General’s office to his own Thursday, saying the move will insulate the agency that investigates the state government from politics.

Critics have said the move will take away the SBI’s independence and handicap its role as a watchdog over the state’s executive office. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is considered a challenger to McCrory, a Republican, for the governor’s office in 2016.

The SBI transfer is part of a broader state law enforcement shakeup, under which the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission will now also report to the N.C. Department of Public Safety instead of the N.C. Commerce Department. All state law enforcement will now be centralized under the public safety department, which reports to the governor.

“We are taking politics out of the equation. ... We will take the politics out of law enforcement,” said McCrory, speaking at a Charlotte news conference. He appointed B.W. Collier, who had been director of the state’s Alcohol Law Enforcement agency, acting director of the SBI.

McCrory said the setup will be “very similar to when I was the mayor of Charlotte. I let the police chief be the police chief.”

Cooper declined comment through a spokeswoman. He has previously strongly opposed the move, saying it could compromise investigations into the public safety department, the legislature and the executive branch.

“Currently, there are sensitive, ongoing investigations such as the Duke Energy coal ash spill at the direction of the U.S. Attorney,” Cooper wrote in a letter to legislative leaders in May. McCrory worked for Duke Energy for years, and the state Department of Natural Resources has been accused of being too cozy with Duke. “Just as critically, SBI agents are conducting investigations involving legislators and even investigations of the very agency to which this proposal seeks to move the SBI.”

In June, the SBI confirmed it was investigating contributions from the video sweepstakes industry to some of the state’s top elected officials. Cooper has said maintaining the SBI’s independence is important to ensure impartial investigations.

“This is bad for law enforcement, public safety and the fight against public corruption,” Cooper told reporters last year. “Putting the SBI under any governor’s administration increases the risk that corruption and cover-up occur with impunity.”

The law enforcement reorganization was included in the state’s budget, which McCrory signed Thursday morning, and is effective immediately.

In response to questions, McCrory said that he couldn’t cite a specific instance when having the SBI report to the Attorney General resulted in a case being shut down due to political interference.

“I have not been involved in the politics of the SBI before, nor will I be after, so I’m unable to answer that question,” McCrory said. “I’m not making that accusation.”

The switch will yield other benefits, such as increased centralization of information sharing and more efficiency, McCrory said.

The governor offered reassurances that the new law ensures the agency’s independence.

McCrory also said that the push to move the SBI didn’t start with him.

“I didn’t ask for this,” he said. “I never requested it.”

Instead, he said the push originated with the Republican-controlled legislature,which first brought up the proposal. Once he studied the idea, McCrory said he agreed with it and decided to support it.

The SBI has been under the Attorney General since it was formed in 1937. The agency has more than 200 field agents and support personnel working out of eight district offices in the state, and investigates crimes ranging from drugs to election law violations to theft or misuse of state property.

The N.C. General Assembly has been fighting over the agency’s future in recent months, and this was the third attempt to transfer the agency since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010.

Under the new law, the agency’s director will now be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The director would serve an eight-year term, which supporters of the deal have said would help insulate the agency from politics.

Speaking alongside McCrory, Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry praised Collier, who spent 26 years as an SBI agent.

“I know that prejudice and political influence are foreign to his mind,” said Perry.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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