RALEIGH — The House Oversight and Reform Committee’s second hearing about improper conduct alleged by State Bureau of Investigation director Bob Schurmeier against members of Gov. Roy Cooper’s senior leadership was no closer to a resolution following a testy hearing on May 2 in Raleigh.
Following weeks of emails between the House oversight staff and three witnesses — Cooper chief of staff Kristi Jones, Cooper general counsel Eric Fletcher and SBI general counsel Angel Gray — the hearing took place at 1 p.m. during a hectic week as legislators slogged through their “crossover” week in which most legislation must pass one of the two chambers to be eligible for ratification.
The committee heard from Schurmeier on March 28 in an extraordinary hearing that even committee members were not informed about the purpose of until shortly before it began.
On two occasions, Schurmeier said Jones and Fletcher asked him for his resignation and threatened him with investigations of racial discrimination. Schurmeier strongly denied any accusations of wrongdoing.
Schurmeier pointed to the meetings that occurred from Oct. to Dec. 2022 in which, while recovering from surgery, he was asked to resign or face an investigation.
“It was clear intimidation,” he said in response to a question from committee co-chair Jake Johnson (R-Polk).
That set the table for the May 2 hearing.
Delayed by a House Rules Committee meeting that ran long beforehand, tensions were quickly raised as Rep. Harry Warren (R-Rowan), the other committee co-chair, said opening statements would not be heard.
Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) began questioning Gray, who brought her personal attorney to the hearing and did not give committee members any answers.
On numerous occasions, Gray responded to questions that she could not answer, saying, “The rules of professional conduct prohibit me from disclosing information that was gained in my role as a general counsel to the SBI.”
Stevens asked Gray if she knew who she represented and who her client was.
“The SBI is my client,” Gray said.
“OK. And what about the governor? Are you answerable to the governor?” Stevens responded.
“No ma’am. I am answerable to the SBI, that state agency and the director of the SBI,” Gray answered.
Stevens retorted back, “You told our legislative staff you were unclear on who you ultimately represent. Did you ever seek advice from the State Bar about that?”
Gray said, “Yes, ma’am I have. The advice from the State Bar is, I represent the SBI.”
Stevens’ questioning of Gray was repeatedly interrupted. Rep. Amos Quick (D-Guilford) asked how long each member would be given, and then Schurmeier’s attorney, Chris Swecker, stood up and told the committee he was willing to waive privilege with Gray on the matters to be discussed.
That prompted an objection from Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), who said the witnesses were entitled to “due process” and they didn’t come prepared for questions.
The focus shifted to Jones, Cooper’s chief of staff since 2017, who used an opening question to begin reading her prepared remarks in defiance of Warren instructing them not to do so. At several points throughout the hearing, Jones said she was brought allegations of discrimination and shared them with Schurmeier but refused to go into any further detail.
Two of the panel’s members, Rep. Allen Chesser (R-Nash) and Rep. Jeff McNeely (R-Iredell), were able to get the three witnesses to corroborate details of the meetings Schurmeier alluded to in his earlier testimony that included two meetings in which Schurmeier said he was threatened with an investigation by a law firm.
Jones confirmed the meetings took place and said they involved serious allegations but refused to go into further detail. When asked why Gray was not at the meetings, the governor’s senior staff faulted Schurmeier.
Another issue that arose from the day’s testimony was Schurmeier’s status following the nomination of a new SBI director the previous week.
On April 27, Cooper nominated North Carolina Captiol Police Chief R.E. “Chip” Hawley to serve as SBI director at the end of Schurmeier’s term on June 30. Hawley has more than 40 years of experience in state and local law enforcement.
“The SBI is North Carolina’s premier law enforcement agency and it’s critical that it has strong leadership focused on keeping North Carolinians safe and who will maintain the highest standards of integrity and professionalism,” said Cooper in a statement. “Chip Hawley brings decades of experience and leadership and strong law enforcement credentials to this role.”
McNeely raised the issue to Jones and Fletcher of whether Schurmeier would continue on a rolling basis or if an acting director would be named. Fletcher said he couldn’t provide a legal answer. Jones said to McNeely that the legislature was “going to do that” and ensure Schurmeier would stay on.
The issue of employee “holdovers” for appointed positions has been a recent dispute between legislative intent and executive power, and it could be implemented in the state budget.
“I think it is extremely troubling that the general counsel of an independent state agency, and the chief of staff of a sitting governor would be discussing personnel and who knows what other issues behind the back of the sitting SBI director,” Johnson said following the two-hour hearing. “This testimony raises more questions than answers and certainly merits a follow-up.”
Warren added, “Interference in personnel matters is much more fundamental than interference in any specific case at the SBI. It’s extremely unfortunate that the governor’s office chose not to answer committee members’ pertinent questions. Hopefully, they will be more forthcoming as the committee continues to investigate Director Schurmeier’s allegations. North Carolinians are entitled to the truth.”