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NC lawmakers hold testy hearing with Cooper staff over SBI concerns

Gov. Roy Cooper aides, at left, faced questioning from state House legislators Tuesday over claims of meddling in the State Bureau of Investigation.
Colin Campbell
Gov. Roy Cooper aides, at left, faced questioning from state House legislators Tuesday over claims of meddling in the State Bureau of Investigation.

A spat between the legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration could affect the leadership of the State Bureau of Investigation.

A House committee held a hearing Tuesday about recent allegations from SBI Director Bob Schurmeier. He claims Cooper’s top aides meddled in his agency and tried to get him to resign. The agency, one of the state’s top law enforcement organizations, is set up independently from other branches of state government, but its director is appointed by the governor with the legislature’s confirmation.

Cooper’s aides faced hours of questioning about it at the hearing, including from Rep. Allen Chesser, R-Nash.

“We’re here to investigate what an independent agency actually looks like and who has oversight over that, and how much pressure can be exerted upon them,” Chesser said.

Cooper’s chief of staff, Kristi Jones, said she met with the SBI director to review allegations made about the agency, although she declined to get specific about the claims.

“Serious allegations of concerns were brought to the attention of the governor’s office, and when those concerns were brought, we had to take those seriously,” Jones said. “And those were shared with Director Schurmeier.”

The hearing featured several testy exchanges between Republican lawmakers and the Cooper officials. At one point, Jones called for a round of applause for the SBI staff.

“Ma’am, we don’t do that in this committee,” Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, interjected.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, then admonished Jones, saying, “This hearing is not about them [SBI staff] … respond to the questions and discontinue any attempts to divert the attention of this hearing.”

Jones, Cooper General Counsel Eric Fletcher, and SBI General Counsel Angel Gray repeatedly declined to answer some of the legislators’ questions, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters and attorney-client privilege.

As the meeting concluded, Warren suggested that a second hearing could be scheduled to question the same group. “I don’t feel like we made a lot of progress to the original intent of the meeting,” he said.

House Democrats voiced their own frustrations about the hearing. “I haven’t seen the mission statement of this committee,” said Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg. “What are we supposed to be finding — that there are issues with personnel? Those are everyday activities.”

The hearing and the kerfuffle come at a period of transition for the SBI.

Last week, Cooper named a new SBI director, State Capitol Police Chief Chip Hawley, to replace Schurmeier when his term expires next year. But lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff McNeely, R-Iredell, suggested they might not confirm him, and that could leave Schurmeier in charge longer.

McNeely made the case that legislative inaction on the Hawley nomination would leave the previous director in place on an interim basis. An attorney for Cooper declined to say if he agreed with McNeely’s interpretation of that scenario.

Schurmeier was appointed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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