RALEIGH, N.C. (Legal Newsline) -- North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said Thursday the state needs stronger tools to fight public corruption at all levels of government -- including making lying to State Bureau of Investigation agents a crime and allowing investigative grand juries.

Under Cooper's direction, the SBI has been the lead investigative agency, or a significant partner, in more than 500 investigations of public officials over the past decade, including members of the previous governor's staff and a governor for conduct committed while in office.

"Stopping public corruption and restoring faith in government mandates uncovering and prosecuting crimes of public officials," said Cooper, joined by Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

"Though SBI public corruption investigations have resulted in many convictions, we've also learned that investigators and prosecutors need stronger tools to uncover the truth and assure that public corruption will be stopped and prosecuted."

Willoughby said the state needs the ability to get to the truth and prosecute cases more effectively.

"Being able to compel the truth when the public trust is at stake would help preserve the integrity of government," he said.

State prosecutors like Willoughby typically call on the SBI to investigate complaints against public officials.

When local prosecutors have a conflict of interest, they also ask the attorney general to prosecute those cases.

SBI agents also work closely with federal investigators and prosecutors on public corruption cases.

Although many of these cases have resulted in successful prosecutions, Cooper said some fail due to uncooperative or untruthful witnesses.

Changes in the law would help, he said.

The attorney general is calling on state lawmakers to:

- Allow state prosecutors to use an investigative grand jury to uncover public corruption and financial fraud.

State prosecutors could convene a grand jury to question witnesses under oath, subpoena records and deliberate evidence of wrongdoing by officials.

A grand jury allows prosecutors to compel witnesses to testify under oath who otherwise might refuse to cooperate with an investigation, Cooper said.

Federal authorities have this authority, but state prosecutors do not.

- Make lying to an SBI agent a felony.

When an FBI agent is present during an interview, a witness who lies or conceals the truth can be charged with a crime because federal law makes it a felony to lie to federal agents.

Cooper said SBI agents working closely with federal agents to investigate public officials have seen witnesses withhold information or lie, then change their stories when a federal agent enters the room.

The proposal would mean making a material false statement to an SBI agent in a criminal investigation a felony. Truth telling should be uniform, the attorney general said.

Currently, state law allows prosecutors to convene an investigative grand jury only for serious drug felonies with the permission of a three-judge panel.

Cooper has pushed to allow it for public corruption and to make lying to an SBI agent a felony in the past; however, the legislature has failed to act.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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