RALEIGH — Attorney General Roy Cooper isn’t wrong. Public corruption cases are not easily prosecuted.
The reason is pretty simply: Most people who are interested bribing a public official, either with favors or cash, do not typically walk up to them say, “Hey, if you give me this state contract, I’ll kick $50,000 back to you.”
They know to be more subtle. Any quid pro quo is implied, not stated.
So, devising laws to catch and prosecute that kind of public corruption can be fairly complicated.
Just a couple of years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court significantly narrowed one of the primary federal laws used to go after corrupt public officials.
The honest services fraud law essentially recognized that proving a public official used his or her official powers to do Act A in exchange for Favor B can be a high hurdle.
Instead, the law required only that prosecutors show that a public official personally benefited by failing to disclose a clear conflict of interest. The defrauding of the public involved a showing that the public official wasn’t really representing the public with their official actions, but representing an outside interest while receiving a perk or pay.
Even with the courts’ narrowing of the law, the feds possess a lot more power than North Carolina prosecutors when it comes to going after public corruption.
Federal prosecutors can call investigative grand juries, pulling in potential witnesses to testify with the threat of perjury if those witnesses fail to tell the truth. It is also a felony to lie to FBI agents in the course of an investigation.
For several years, Cooper has been calling for North Carolina prosecutors to be given the same powers, and for the same penalty to apply to lying to State Bureau of Investigation agents.
Cooper recently reiterated that call. State legislators may not be any more likely to answer the call for the same reason that they failed to do so in 2007 or in the years since: trust.
State legislators historically haven’t trusted local prosecutors with the power to convene investigative grand juries to prosecute political-related corruption.
The fear is that some prosecutor would turn the power into a political weapon, going after a political opponent for purely political reasons.
It would be nice to believe that such an abuse of power would never happen.
But it is hard to look beyond the fact that federal prosecutors, their appointments controlled by the political party that controls the White House, have had a tendency to go after politicians of the opposing party while ignoring the misdeeds of those in their own party.
Would local prosecutors be any less inclined to allow their political biases to get in the way?
Probably not. Cooper makes a good point that cases of public corruption need to be investigated thoroughly and independently, without looking for federal help.
To get state legislators on board, he is going to have to find some safeguards to ensure that independence part of the equation.
Capitol Press Association