SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Cleaning Up Your Own House
Another political scandal in North Carolina. Another group of state officials and private sector wheeler-dealers parading before a federal grand jury. Another round of questioning the integrity of those put into positions of authority.
What's wrong with this picture?
Some would say it's that politicians never learn, that so many so willingly disregard the admonition that power corrupts, that they fail to heed what a stern test power can be.
But in North Carolina, there's something else just not right about all this, according to former FBI agent Frank Perry.
"This state has got to grow up and begin investigating itself," Perry recently told The News & Observer of Raleigh. "It should not have taken (the newspaper) and the FBI serving subpoenas to bring this out."
The "this," in this case, is the free cars, free trips, land transactions and other goings-on surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper would probably disagree with Perry's assessment.
Late last year, Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley noted that the State Bureau of Investigation had played a role in investigating recent public corruption cases, including those involving former House Speaker Jim Black and former Commissioner of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps.
She also noted the SBI had been involved in more than 450 public corruption cases over the past eight years.
But the statements have a bit of a hollow ring.
It's one thing for state investigators based in Raleigh to look into charges that a local sheriff absconded with some seized property. It's quite another to probe alleged wrongdoing by one of the top elected officials in the state, who might very well be of the same political party as your elected boss.
With both Black and Phipps, state investigators joined in the hunt only once the FBI and federal prosecutors were well down the road toward developing corruption cases.
That's not exactly Cooper's fault. The feds have tools that he doesn't, tools that he's asked that the legislature give him. He's asked for the ability to convene investigative grand juries. He's asked that lying to an SBI agent be made a felony.
The legislature has refused.
The reasoning behind the refusal to allow state investigative grand juries makes some sense. Some legislators worry that politically-minded district attorneys looking to make a name for themselves would use such grand juries to conduct politically-motivated witch hunts.
But other states allow them.
The way to prevent politically-motivated investigations is simply to make state prosecutors -- whether Cooper and his deputies, or local district attorneys -- jump through some hoops. Requiring the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, or a set number of appellate court judges, to sign off on an investigative grand jury is one way to prevent abuse.
Without some type of reform along these lines, North Carolina's political leaders will continue to look as if they don't really care about keeping their own house in order.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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