Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is Donna King.
In revealing, sometimes emotional, testimony Tuesday before the N.C. House Oversight and Reform Committee, State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier described a culture of political strong-arming from Gov. Roy Cooper's senior staff.
Schurmeier accused Cooper staffers of interfering with his ability to manage direct reports, intimidating him with threats, and calling for his resignation.
Schurmeier pinpointed Cooper's Chief of Staff Kristi Jones and General Counsel Eric Fletcher as being the couriers of the pressure campaign, threatening him with a "big investigation"
and accusing him of racial discrimination if he did not resign. He refused to do so.
"I told them, 'you all are lawyers, so you know when I say that I deserve some due process,'"
he testified. After two meetings with Jones and Fletcher, in which Schurmeier says he was threatened with an investigation at SBI expense, no such investigation materialized.
Schurmeier came forward about the political drama to lawmakers. He said the future of the state's top criminal investigative agency depended on distancing it from the Department of Public Safety and allowing it to operate more independently, but with accountability.
He described an environment in which senior members of his staff were hired and directed by the governor's office and had divided loyalties, particularly his lead attorney, listed on the SBI website as Angel Gray, who was allegedly "reminded that she works for the governor"
by one of Cooper's senior advisers.
Schurmeier said both SBI lawyers happened to be "out"
when Schurmeier was confronted on two occasions by Jones and Fletcher. When he consulted with Gray as the agency's general counsel, he said she was not responsive. They went long periods without talking at all. He says he requested to Jones that Gray be reassigned, to no avail.
"I tried to part ways, but find a kind way to do it,"
he testified. Jones allegedly said Gray's pay grade prevented her transfer.
Among the jurisdictions under the State Bureau of Investigation are drug trafficking, arson, embezzlement, and election law violations.
"I think you stepped on some toes,"
said Rep. Jeffrey McNeeley, R-Iredell, in committee on Tuesday. "The good ol' boys didn't like getting their toes stepped on, so they tried to pressure the head of an agency that covers our whole state."
Lawmakers asked pointed questions about the SBI's culture and its management relationship with the governor. Even Democrat members offered questions about the private conversations and asked how Schurmeier would envision a new agency home for the SBI.
"A lot of this seems personal,"
said Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford. "We are talking about restructuring an entire agency because of what appears to be a personal issue."
Schurmeier disagreed, saying it is not a personal conflict. He said because his tenure is up in June, he wants the legislature to structure the SBI so that his successors have a separate budget number and autonomy from the Department of Public Safety and the governor's office in senior staff hiring, promotions, and management.
"What I'm attempting here is to ensure that the next director ought to have the authority to run this agency and determine senior staff members and shouldn't have to negotiate with the governor's office to do that,"
The SBI was moved out from under the Department of Justice, run by the state attorney general, in 2014 by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. At that time, Cooper was serving in his 14th year as attorney general. Schurmeier told lawmakers that under DOJ, budgetary priorities were focused on hiring attorneys, not law enforcement or investigators.
Schurmeier said the SBI did not add one agent for nearly a decade, despite growth in crime and population, but has since "come from behind"
under his leadership and added 16 new agents, improved technology, established a task force to identify excessive force, and "leaned into the future,"
He warned lawmakers that staffing at all levels of law enforcement, including the SBI, remains a major problem. In a state with 10.5 million residents, just 1,700 enroll in law enforcement training annually.
"Of those, there are some that none of us want in law enforcement,"
he said, describing enrollees who can't pass physical, academic, or background check requirements.
A spike in drug trafficking, particularly fentanyl, is at crisis level in North Carolina. Schurmeier reminded lawmakers that drug deaths in the state are happening every day, and defeating the scourge of drug crime is a primary mission for SBI investigators.
"Our agency is helping, and I hope you will stand with me,"
Schurmeier said to lawmakers. "We are going to take on these cartels and teach them a lesson if they come to North Carolina."
In closing the hearing, Chairman Jake Johnson, R-Polk, thanked the director and members, indicating that changes to the agency may appear in the budget. Johnson said further investigations are on the horizon.
"This afternoon, State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier made concerning allegations about involvement in personnel matters as well as attempted intimidation tactics with no basis to force his resignation, from top staff in Governor Cooper's Office,"
Johnson wrote in a statement released after the hearing. "Appointed leadership positions have inherent split loyalties between the Governor's office and Department leadership, especially when politics do not align. Director Schurmeier made a clear case for a completely independent SBI. Committee members on both sides of the aisle made clear that we need to bring in the governor's staff and others to better understand this matter in the interest of full transparency. We would like to thank Director Schurmeier for his bravery in cooperating with this inquiry. It is a true act of public service to the State of North Carolina."