Legislative quest for political meddling might start with a look in a mirror

Published April 20, 2023

By Capitol Broadcasting Company

The notion that “political meddling threatens the SBI,” as a recent opinion headline warned, could be a valid concern.

But the worry should be more for those raising the alarm – who appear perpetuate the problem – and whether the true roots of the meddling will be addressed.

A legislative committee claims to be in the midst of an examination of questions over the SBI’s current leadership. It remains to be seen to what degree that examination is more partisan meddling by legislators than true concerns over agency operations.

First, some facts and history.

In 2014 the Republican led General Assembly, using a provision of the budget bill, moved the oversight of the State Bureau of Investigation from the Department of Justice led by the state attorney general -- where it had been for 75 years --into the state Department of Public Safety led by the governor. The SBI director became an appointment of the governor with confirmation required by the legislature.

In 2014 the state attorney general was Roy Cooper – a Democrat was elected governor in 2016 and re-elected in 2020. The governor in 2014 coincidentally, was a Republican like the legislative leaders - Pat McCrory.

In April 2016 McCrory (who’d served as mayor of Charlotte) appointed the current SBI director, Bob Schurmeier, who’d been deputy chief of investigations Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in 2004 before founding a corporate security and investigative consulting business.

Using a budget bill – with little opportunity for independent actual examination, discussion and debate over transferring an agency from where it had been for three-quarters of a century – Republicans moved the SBI from a department led by a Democrat into an agency led by a Republican. A Republican appointed the SBI director and the Republican-led legislature confirmed the appointment of that SBI director.

Now, the current SBI director Schurmeier – appointed by a Republican governor and confirmed by a Republican-dominated legislature with a term that ends in six weeks– works in an agency now led by a Democratic governor.

Schurmeier appeared before the Republican-dominated House Oversight and Reform Committee two weeks ago, during an unannounced meeting, complaining he’d been the victim of “clear intimidation” by Cooper’s administration and its appointees.

It is important to stress there was NO advance notice of the committee’s meeting. Committee Chairman Jake Johnson, R-Henderson, said he kept “a tight lid on” things because of what he said was the sensitive nature of the testimony. Schurmeier, speaking under oath, leveled serious accusations against the Cooper administration. No one from the administration or those who’d complained of alleged discrimination were given opportunities for rebuttal.

There was no airing of the very serious concerns that had been raised about racial discrimination and lack of advancement and training opportunities for minority SBI agents under Schurmeier leadership.

There wasn’t even an invitation for the Cooper administration to explain and defend its actions. Only after Cooper’s Chief of Staff Kristie Jones sent a pointed letter to the House committee’s leaders, was an April 18 meeting set to hear from Cooper.

Rather than the “clear intimidation,” as Schurmeier contends, Jones said “current and former agents and others have contacted us to share a variety of information that left us increasingly concerned about the direction of the SBI” as well as “a lack of racial diversity among sworn SBI agents, promotion decisions and practices, and access to training, among others.”

Given the legislative manipulation of the SBI since 2014, it is hard to take seriously any real concerns of oversight rather than just another effort to fix a partisan power grab that didn’t seem to have worked as intended a decade ago.

Rather than offering an Orwellian defense of their irresponsibility, House committee co-chairs Johnson and Harry Warren should make sure there is a full and fair opportunity discuss the problems at the SBI they say they’ve identified – from ALL sources.

Further, those who have complained of discrimination and lack of opportunity at the SBI should, of their own volition, come forward to detail their concerns and experiences.

What is most important is that ALL North Carolinians clearly see for themselves if there are problems at the SBI and what those problems REALLY are (in this case “intimidation” vs. racial discrimination).

This is needed so citizens are assured any actions taken by the legislature and/or the Cooper administration address real problems not simply act on partisan expediency.

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