Schurmeier: Governor’s Staff Interfered with SBI Independence

North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) director Bob Schurmeier testified before the NC House Oversight and Reform Committee Tuesday that Governor Roy Cooper’s staff repeatedly interfered with the independence of his agency. An independent SBI is necessary for its role investigating allegations of misuse of state property, public corruption, and election law violations.

Schurmeier said tensions with the governor culminated in Kristi Jones, the governor’s chief of staff, asking for his resignation and the governor’s general counsel, Eric Fletcher, threatening him with an investigation for which the SBI would need to hire its own outside counsel to defend itself.

Cooper’s staff interfered with his hiring authority, Schurmeier said. He explained that they delayed his hiring of key positions and inserted themselves into his decision to fill a vacant deputy director position. He added that he had lost trust in his general counsel Angel Gray and earlier sought Jones’ assistance to find her another job within state government.

“It’s been difficult. This is tough job, but when you have someone who is there to support you legally and be there at tense meetings and have your back,” Schurmeier said. “We actually talked about that, whether she had my back or not, and I just didn’t think she did.”

Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Schurmeier to head the bureau in 2016 after state law made it an independent agency, separate from the Department of Justice. Many senior SBI staff had a long history with Cooper, when, as attorney general, he oversaw the Bureau.

Schurmeier described the culture at SBI when he took over as a “good old boys” club that lacked diversity. He described the questionable practice of “draft day.” He also explained his attempt to expand diversity and inclusion in the ranks of agents, including his promotion of minority agents.

Rep. Rep. Jake Johnson, presides over the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing Tuesday, March 28, 2023.

“New agent selection, I observed that, and they called it ‘draft day,’ which was basically horse trading of positions,” he said. “There was a lack of diversity at the executive levels of both the SBI and ALE (Alcohol Law Enforcement). Nominal efforts at best were made to innovate and lean into the future.

“When I took over, the executive staff that reported to me wasn’t very diverse,” he said. “I reduced people in rank and allowed others to retire and filled those with one white male, one white female, two black males, including the first black male to head ALE, and in 2018, I promoted a white male and a white female and in 2020, to an assistant director, I promoted a black female to assistant, and in 2021, a white male and black male to assistant director.

“During my term, I have promoted 48 white females, 15 black males, 21 black females, 1 Asian male, 2 Hispanic males, and 5 Hispanic females. I also drafted on my own a diversity and inclusion plan in 2020 and shared it with the governor’s office. That program is now led by an African American female.”

Schurmeier testified that these issues of interference began with a personnel dispute in 2018.  An agent alleged the director discriminated based on race in a hiring decision. Jones held a meeting in 2020 to address the issue.

“The chief [Jones] was very upset. I would say she was very mad at me.  She was so mad, I was certain that if she could have fired me, she would have.”

Schurmeier found himself in trouble with the governor’s office again last fall. In October 2022, Jones called him to the governor’s office and asked him to resign after she learned of these allegations. Fletcher added that if the director doesn’t resign, they would need to have aa big investigation of the SBI. He further indicated that two other agencies had been investigated and that it wasn’t good.  Jones and Fletcher both repeated their threats to Schurmeier in a follow-up meeting in November 2022.

“I know I had done nothing for her to fire me, and I strongly believe nothing for which I should have been asked to resign,” he said.

Schurmeier stressed the importance of an independent and autonomous SBI, especially in hiring decisions.

“What I’m attempting to do here is set this up for the future of the SBI,” he said. “You can’t remove politics from law enforcement, but to the extent that you can, you ought to. The SBI director ought to autonomy. They ought to have the authority and permission to hire their direct reports, their top executive staff and shouldn’t have to negotiate with the governor’s staff.”

Oversight and Reform Committee co-chair Jake Johnson (R-Henderson, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford) reiterated the gravity of Schurmeier’s testimony.

“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 Governor Cooper’s Office,” he said. “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. 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.”

The transcript from the hearing can be found here.