A provision of North Carolina’s newly-passed state budget would create a “secret police” force, critics say, which would be run by a state legislative committee that is currently managed by Republicans.
After months of negotiations, the state budget passed in late September; the bill became law without Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature 10 days later. Cooper could not block the bill because Republicans have a veto-proof majority in the legislature, and North Carolina law does not allow the governor to make line-item vetoes.
A provision that was widely criticized by Democratic members of the legislature empowers the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations — sometimes referred to as Gov Ops — to conduct investigations into “possible instances of misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance, mismanagement, waste, abuse, or illegal conduct” by other state or local agencies or private companies or individuals who receive state funding, which could include contractors, subcontractors, state-run universities and charities in the state.
The provision allows Gov Ops to conduct such investigations with apparently no oversight whatsoever. Over the course of any investigation conducted by the committee, individuals under investigation would be forbidden from speaking publicly about possible misdeeds or overreaches by investigators, and all communications or requests from the committee’s staff would be “confidential.” Subjects would also be barred from consulting with legal counsel about their rights, and searches of properties (whether in public or private spaces) could occur without the need for a warrant.
“This secret police force can even come into, for example, a law firm that receives state funding for court-appointed lawyers,” Rep. Allison Dahle, a Democratic state lawmaker, said during debate over the bill. “This now means that the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege is now defunct.”
The secret investigations could also affect state-managed elections next year or beyond. After the 2020 presidential election, several North Carolina Republican lawmakers demanded to inspect voting machines, citing dubious claims that fraud had affected the final count. Those Republicans said they would use police to force the inspections, if necessary — but under the provisions of the new rule, such a search wouldn’t require a warrant and the public would not have to be notified.
The budget is set to go into effect next week.
Republican state lawmakers maintain that the new law is in the name of “government accountability,” and that the investigatory powers of the committee are needed to ensure oversight of public funds. But as Tesnim Zekeria of Popular Information pointed out, the same leaders “pushed through several provisions in the budget that restrict access to legislative public records, eliminating a critical tool for accountability — including for Gov Ops itself.”
The new rule, along with provisions in the budget that exempt state lawmakers from responding to open records requests, “poses a significant threat to the public’s right to see public records in the hands of the General Assembly when records are archived,” said Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association, last month.
State Sen. Graig Meyer (D) described the provision as deeply unsettling.
“I don’t think I have ever publicly called the GOP leadership ‘authoritarian’ because that’s not a term I take lightly,” Meyer told Zekeria of Popular Information. “But their approach to seizing power and cover up their tracks now fits the bill.”
Daniel P. Aldrich, a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, also decried the new law.
“This consolidation of force and coercion is very worrying,” Aldrich wrote on social media.
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