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Investigators and prosecutors in North Carolina need strong tools to fight public corruption at all levels of government, Attorney General Roy Cooper and Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Thursday.
Under Cooper's direction, the NC State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) has been the lead investigative agency or a significant partner in more than 500 investigations of public officials over the past decade, including members of the previous Governor's staff and a Governor for conduct committed while in office.
"Stopping public corruption and restoring faith in government mandates uncovering and prosecuting crimes of public officials," Cooper said. "Though SBI public corruption investigations have resulted in many convictions, we've also learned that investigators and prosecutors need stronger tools to uncover the truth and assure that public corruption will be stopped and prosecuted."
"We rely on public officials to act with integrity, but when they don't we need the ability to get to the truth and prosecute cases effectively," Willoughby said. "Being able to compel the truth when the public trust is at stake would help preserve the integrity of government."
State prosecutors like Willoughby usually call on the SBI to investigate complaints against public officials. When local prosecutors have a conflict of interest, they also ask the Attorney General to prosecute these cases. SBI agents also work closely with federal investigators and prosecutors on public corruption cases.
Although many of these cases have resulted in successful prosecutions, some founder due to uncooperative or untruthful witnesses. Changes in the law would help, Cooper said. Cooper is calling on state legislators to:
Allow state prosecutors to use an investigative grand jury to uncover public corruption and financial fraud.
State prosecutors could convene a grand jury to question witnesses under oath, subpoena records and deliberate evidence of wrongdoing by officials. A grand jury allows prosecutors to compel witnesses to testify under oath who otherwise might refuse to cooperate with an investigation. Federal authorities have this authority, but state prosecutors don't.
Make lying to an SBI agent a felony.
When an FBI agent is present during an interview, a witness who lies or conceals the truth can be charged with a crime because federal law makes it a felony to lie to federal agents. SBI agents working closely with federal agents to investigate public officials have seen witnesses withhold information or lie, then change their stories when a federal agent enters the room. The proposal would mean making a material false statement to an SBI agent in a criminal investigation a felony. Truth telling should be uniform.
Currently state law allows prosecutors to convene an investigative grand jury for serious drug felonies with the permission of a three-judge panel. Cooper has pushed to allow it for public corruption, and to make lying to an SBI agent a felony, but the legislature has failed to act. (S 1404, 2009; S 132, 2007)
Examples of public corruption investigations handled by the SBI include the following cases:
A Governor, for fraud and election law violations
Governor's staff members, for bribery, fraud, and election law violations
A Council of State member, for fraud and election law violations
A US Congressman, for fraud and false pretense
A Speaker of the NC House, for bribery and obstruction of justice
Multiple state legislators, for obstruction of justice and fraud
Multiple local law enforcement, for embezzlement, obstruction of justice, fraud, bribery, and conspiracy
A district attorney, for failure to perform duties, impersonation of an officer, and sexual offense
An assistant district attorney, for obstruction of justice, falsifying records, and conspiracy
A judge, for failing to discharge duties of office.
In recent years, SBI agents have investigated several state executive branch officials from agencies including the departments of Correction, Environment and Natural Resources, Public Safety, and Transportation. In addition to public corruption, SBI agents across the state also routinely investigate excessive force complaints, and various criminal allegations involving government officials and members of law enforcement, including state troopers and prison guards.
SBI agents are currently investigating officials at a state prison in Sampson County for alleged physical abuse of inmates.
Several local law enforcement officers in the Cherryville area were federally indicted last year after a joint FBI/SBI investigation uncovered that the group had allegedly trafficked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen merchandise.
SBI agents went undercover in 2009 to catch a Division of Motor Vehicles Fayetteville district supervisor who was dealing in stolen property. He pleaded guilty to possession of stolen goods and obstruction of justice.
A State Trooper in Orange County was sentenced to more than six years behind bars in 2008 after an SBI investigation showed that he had tried to sexually assault women he pulled over while on duty.
A DENR official pleaded guilty in 2008 to federal charges of extortion and money laundering following a joint FBI/SBI investigation into permits for a Beaufort County ethanol plant.
The SBI specializes in investigations involving embezzlement and misuse of state property or resources. By law, all state agencies must report lost, stolen, damaged or misused state property to the SBI. All reported incidents are reviewed, including any action taken by local law enforcement, and an SBI investigation opened when determined necessary by SBI leadership in consultation with prosecutors.