RALEIGH — The North Carolina Senate has rejected efforts to expand investigative grand juries amid continued concern from some lawmakers who worry the tool could give too much power to district attorneys.
The Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday eliminated a section of a law enforcement bill that would have allowed state prosecutors to call witnesses and compel them to testify in cases of bribery or public corruption.
Opponents, who have consistently struck down similar bills for at least a decade, say prosecutors could too easily abuse the system and conduct unnecessary inquiries into political enemies.
Current state law only allows investigative grand juries in drug and human trafficking cases, but Attorney General Roy Cooper has fought for years to expand the tool. In a statement after the Senate committee decision Tuesday, Cooper reaffirmed his position that North Carolina needs stronger resources to fight dishonesty from public officials.
Cooper said the U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday decision to throw out the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell demonstrates the importance of weeding corruption at a state level.
“As the overturning of the conviction of Virginia’s governor shows us, it’s difficult to successfully prosecute politicians and public officials,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that North Carolina prosecutors won’t have this tool already being used against drug dealers available to fight public corruption.”
The proposal’s supporters say limits on investigative grand juries handicap the North Carolina by forcing attorneys to hand public corruption cases over to the federal government for prosecution.
For cases such as that of former House Speaker Jim Black, who in 2007 pleaded guilty to a felony charge and entered an Alford plea to state charges, North Carolina was forced to partner with federal prosecutors to call investigative grand juries. A federal investigative grand jury that met for more than a year looked into his finances and related areas. Black pleaded guilty to a single count of accepting things of value in connection with the business of state government.
Investigative grand juries would allow state prosecutors to question witnesses under oath, subpoena records and deliberate evidence of wrongdoing by officials. District attorneys could compel sworn testimony from witnesses who otherwise might refuse to cooperate.
Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, a former police chief who attempted to add the expansion to the law enforcement bill this year, said he has seen the effectiveness of investigative grand juries in drug cartel cases and believes the benefits of using them to investigate public officials would outweigh the costs.
“I give our prosecutors and others credit to be honest in what they do, and I think it would work well,” Faircloth said.
Faircloth said he will try again with similar legislation next year.