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  • Carolina Journal Staff

Cooper senior staff agrees to testify on SBI allegations

In an about-face, Gov. Roy Cooper’s Chief of Staff Kristi Jones and General Counsel Eric Fletcher now say they will testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, just not on Tuesday as scheduled. In a letter dated Monday, April 17, Jones offered lawmakers three options of days several weeks from now when she would be able to testify.

On Friday, Cooper’s office released an open letter to select media outlets from Jones that said she declined the request from committee chairs Reps. Jake Johnson, R-Polk, and Harry Warren, R-Rowan, for her testimony because personnel files were protected under law.

Her apparent change of heart followed a letter from lawmakers Saturday warning that the refusal to testify would delay the investigation into SBI Director Bob Schurmeier’s allegations that Jones and Fletcher attempted to intimidate senior management of the State Bureau of Investigation.

“Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. §120-19.4 your refusal to appear before the committee until we obtain a written waiver from Director Schurmeier is potentially grounds for contempt,” wrote Johnson and Warren.

A hearing for 3 p.m. Tuesday remains on the state legislative calendar with SBI General Counsel Angel Gray expected to testify. It follows testimony from Schurmeier on March 27 alleging that Jones and Fletcher interfered with his leadership in the law enforcement agency, threatening him with an expensive investigation if he did not resign.

In an earlier media letter from Jones and Fletcher responding to Schurmeier’s allegations, the pair claimed that the governor’s office had concerns about racial diversity in hiring at the SBI under Schurmeier’s leadership.

“Over the past several years, current and former agents and others have contacted us to share a variety of information that left us increasingly concerned about the direction of the SBI and whether it was continuing to meet its high historical standards,” Jones wrote in the letter, as reported by the News and Observer.

The second letter said Jones and Fletcher would require a waiver to discuss personnel matters. Lawmakers said the substance of their talks with Schurmeier are not privileged and suggested they contact Schurmeier if they want a waiver.

“Whether you obtain one or not does not absolve you or Mr. Fletcher of your obligation under law to appear and truthfully testify before this committee,” the lawmakers wrote to Jones.

In revealing and sometimes emotional testimony, Schurmeier told lawmakers that on several occasions Cooper’s senior advisers threatened to force his resignation and told his own general counsel, Angel Gray, “not to forget she worked for the governor,” and fought him on hiring and promotion decisions. In his March testimony, Schurmeier asked lawmakers to restructure the SBI with more independence after he departs the job in June.

The new House budget proposal does take the SBI out from under the Department of Public Safety, assigns the State Crime Lab to be under the SBI, and makes the agency independent with its own budget. Schurmeier was appointed to lead the SBI by then-Gov. Pat McCrory when it was under the Department of Justice and then-N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper. The state legislature moved the SBI out from under the DOJ in 2015.

Schurmeier told lawmakers that when he arrived at the agency, the DOJ under Cooper’s 16-year tenure was focused on hiring lawyers, not law enforcement officers. He said that, at the time, the SBI had not hired a new investigator in nearly a decade. Since then, the SBI has hired 16 more agents.

“The SBI director ought to have the autonomy, if they are nominated by the governor and confirmed by both houses, especially by unanimous consent, they ought to have the permission and authority to hire their executive staff, and they shouldn’t have to negotiate with the governor’s office to do that,” Schurmeier said.

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