SBI director alleges interference from governor’s office in hearing

State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) director Bob Schurmeier testifies in front of the N.C. House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. North State Journal

RALEIGH — State Bureau of Investigation director Bob Schurmeier testified that his agency should be untethered completely from cabinet-level agencies in a House Oversight and Reform hearing in Raleigh on Tuesday, March 28.

The purpose of the hearing was kept from even the committee members by leadership until earlier in the day. In opening remarks, Rep. Jake Johnson (R-Polk) said it was not going to be standard operating procedure but the sensitivity required to make Schurmeier comfortable made it necessary.

For over an hour, Schurmeier detailed cases in which he said felt intimidated by members of Gov. Roy Cooper’s senior leadership and called repeatedly for the SBI to become truly independent.

“I’ve done my level best to avoid the limelight, but I feel called to be here today,” he said during his opening remarks to the committee members.

Schurmeier said at times members of the governor’s office held multiple sensitive meetings concerning SBI confidential matters with Department of Public Safety secretaries – including former secretary Erik Hooks and current secretary Eddie Buffaloe. He told the committee he felt the purpose of those meetings was to “intimidate” him.

On two occasions, he said Cooper’s Chief of Staff Kristie Jones and General Counsel Eric Fletcher asked him for his resignation and threatened him with investigations of racial discrimination. Schurmeier strongly denied any accusations of wrongdoing.

Schurmeier pointed to meetings that occurred in a time frame of October-December 2022 in which, while recovering from surgery, he was asked to resign or face investigation. By December, according to Schurmeier, he was then asked if he wanted a second term – which he says left him flabbergasted. Upon telling them he did not, he was asked to put that in writing.

Johnson asks Schurmeier how he interpreted the meetings.

“It was clear intimidation,” he responded.

Schurmeier then pointed to eight exempt positions within the SBI that he was not able to hire his preferred candidates. This dates back to the 2014 legislation that pulled the SBI from under the N.C. Department of Justice and made it independent, but with administrative support from DPS.

It’s that support, Schurmeier said, that would turn into more control from the governor’s office.

As an example, Schurmeier was informed he could not select his preferred candidates for a deputy director position and general counsel.

The SBI’s general counsel is a former employee of the DOJ who was hired by now-Gov. Roy Cooper while he was attorney general.

Throughout the hearing Schurmeier detailed his extensive work in updating and overhauling the agency since his appointment and confirmation in 2016.

He said the state ranks third in wiretaps nationally, participated in massive drug busts working with agencies such as the DEA, and “shook the agency as hard as he could shake it” in his first nine months in the role.

“I found an agency that was risk-averse and agents who were significantly underpaid,” said Schurmeier. He added that agents told him under DOJ the focus was attorneys and they received no pay increases.

“Agents were led militarily, not collegially,” he added.

Yet under DPS, Schurmeier said, many of his hires were slow-walked and the SBI’s budget requests were often wrapped into their presentations to the General Assembly. He said SBI should have its own staffing, HR and budget code.

“SBI occupies a unique position. The public must have confidence they are able to complete mission with independence and keep politics out of the state’s premiere law enforcement agency,” Schurmeier said in his closing remarks.

“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 Gov. Roy Cooper’s office,” Johnson said in a statement after the hearing obtained by North State Journal.

“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,” said Johnson.

“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.”

Johnson said during the meeting that the committee would go on a fact-finding mission and the individuals from the governor’s office named in the hearing would be invited to testify at a future date.

North State Journal submitted a request for comment to Gov. Cooper’s office which has not been returned.

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Matt Mercer is the editor in chief of North State Journal and can be reached at [email protected].