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Lawmakers poised to expand investigative grand juries

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Legislation advancing through the North Carolina Senate would give new powers to investigative grand juries, a move that the attorney general has been pushing for nearly a decade.

A Senate judiciary committee passed a bill Thursday to give the state the ability to call witnesses and compel them to testify in cases of bribery or public corruption. The measure, which now goes to the Senate Finance Committee, passed the House unanimously earlier this month.

Attorney General Roy Cooper and district attorneys have fought for years to expand investigative grand juries, which state law currently allows only in drug and human trafficking cases. That restriction has forced state prosecutors to hand cases over to the federal government for prosecution.

For public corruption 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.

Cooper said reliance on the federal government can have its limits, and the tool would give the state greater power to investigate any existing corruption for it.

“Accusations of public corruption are often difficult to prove, and law enforcement and prosecutors need better tools to root out wrong doing by government officials,” Cooper said in a statement Thursday. “Investigative grand juries can help uncover the truth and restore faith in government.”

State 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.

Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said she was surprised the legislation was moving forward this year.

“We have asked for them, but we really didn’t think they had a chance of passing in the current administration,” Dorer said.

Some lawmakers still have their doubts. Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, maintains that the tool could easily be abused for political gain.

Daughtry said he is concerned prosecutors could target political enemies and start investigating them with very little evidence.

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