Governor’s Staff and SBI General Counsel Provide Few Answers
May 3, 2023
On Tuesday, May 2, House Oversight and Reform Committee members pursued allegations by State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier of overreach and strong-arming by Governor Roy Cooper’s office.
Director Schurmeier testified in March that the governor’s Chief of Staff Kristi Jones and General Counsel Eric Fletcher attempted to interfere in his personnel decisions and intimidate him to resign. He also testified that SBI General Counsel Angel Gray was unsure what responsibilities she had either to the Bureau or to the governor.
Jones, Fletcher, and Gray appeared before the Committee to address the allegations. But the hearing ended with more questions than answers. The three cited rules of professional conduct and other impediments that left them unable to discuss or refute any of the allegations. Despite this, they did mark areas of disagreement with Schurmeier’s testimony and made clear statements that they did not engage in anything that could be deemed inappropriate.
Gray stated that, contrary to Schurmeier’s testimony, she was not conflicted or confused about her role as general counsel of the SBI. “My job is to give advice to my client to make the best decision possible.”
Likewise, Jones, amidst repeated attempts to divert the Committee’s attention, also denied Schurmeier’s accusations of intimidation and interference. She said her relationship with the director was collaborative on hiring practices, training, recruitment, and retention.
Governor Cooper nominated State Capitol Police Chief Roger “Chip” Hawley as SBI director when Schurmeier’s term ends. When questioned by Representatives, Fletcher and Jones seemed confused about the process as well as the provisions in place if the successor had not been confirmed and duly qualified.
Schurmeier testified to meetings with Jones and Fletcher in late 2022 where they asked him to resign and threatened him with an investigation due to discrimination complaints. Jones did not dispute that the meetings happened but that he mischaracterized those meetings and the nature of the look into SBI practices.
Co-Chair Jake Johnson brought to light email communications that did not include Schurmeier between Gray and governor’s staff on SBI matters dating back to 2019. Some of the emails included little more than a personal cell phone number and an invitation to continue communication that way. They suggested significantly more contact between Gray and the governor’s staff without Schurmeier’s knowledge than they had testified to earlier in the hearing.
After the hearing, Johnson said, “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. This testimony raises more questions than answers and certainly merits a follow up.”
Co-Chair Harry Warren called for further investigation in his closing statement and expressed his frustration afterward.
“Interference in personnel matters is much more fundamental than interference in any specific case at the SBI. It is 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,” Warren said. “North Carolinians are entitled to the truth.”
Statements from House Oversight and Reform Co-Chairs Regarding May 2 SBI Hearing
May 2, 2023
Representative Jake Johnson: “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. This testimony raises more questions than answers and certainly merits a follow up.”
Representative Harry Warren: “Interference in personnel matters is much more fundamental than interference in any specific case at the SBI. lt’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.”
House Oversight and Reform Committee Hearing Tuesday, May 2 What to Watch For
May 1, 2023
Tuesday’s hearing will address allegations previously made by SBI Director Bob Schurmeier during the Committee’s hearing on March 28.
SBI General Counsel Angel Gray will address Director Bob Schurmeier’s testimony that he lacked confidence in her advice due to her conflicted loyalties between the SBI and Governor Cooper.
Chief of Staff Kristi Jones and General Counsel Eric Fletcher from Governor Cooper’s office will answer questions regarding Schurmeier’s allegations of interference and intimidation in their call on him to resign as director.
In their responses to Schurmeier’s testimony and the Committee’s invitation to appear, Jones and Fletcher emphasized the culture of the SBI and focused on an ongoing EEOC complaint. However, with Governor Cooper’s nomination of Chip Hawley to be the next SBI Director, the culture issues they claim have only existed under Schurmeier may continue. The governor’s staff will be called upon to account for the fact that the issues were prevalent prior to Schurmeier’s term when the SBI was housed in the Department of Justice, under then Attorney General Roy Cooper.
The transcript from the March 28 hearing can be found here.
SBI Hearing Rescheduled for May 2
April 18, 2023
The House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday; April 18 has been postponed. In a letter to the Committee chairs late Friday afternoon, the governor’s Chief of Staff Kristi Jones stated that she and general counsel Eric Fletcher were declining to appear. After a follow-up letter from the co-chairs Saturday night, citing state statues that compel them to appear under the potential of contempt, the governor’s staff requested alternate dates to appear before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The Committee worked with Jones and Fletcher, and the hearing has been rescheduled for Tuesday, May 2.
SBI general counsel Angel Gray is also slated to testify.
“As long as it leads to true and forthright testimony regarding the content of the meetings that took place between the Director and Governor’s staff, we are more than willing to accommodate a new date,” Rep. Jake Johnson said. “We look forward to hearing from both Ms. Jones and Mr. Fletcher. We appreciate their cooperation.”
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairs Release OpEd Ahead of Tuesday’s SBI Hearing
April 13, 2023
The Charlotte Observer ran an oped by House Oversight and Reform Committee chairs Rep. Jake Johnson and Rep. Harry Warren explaining the need for an independent SBI and why the committee’s investigation into allegations of interference and intimidation is crucial.
“Who could have guessed that staff for Cooper, now governor, would be the ones accused of trying to intimidate the SBI director and interfere with the Bureau’s staffing decisions? This is precisely what SBI Director Bob Schurmeier alleged in sworn testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which we chair. If people are policy, as the adage says, such actions could have even broader implications than direct intervention in any specific case.”
Schurmeier: Governor’s Staff Interfered with SBI Independence
March 28, 2023
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.
“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.