by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
State Auditor Beth Wood’s office has been investigating the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff, Ennis Wright, responded by suing the Office of State Auditor. Their conflict raises legal and philosophical questions about the proper relationship between the state and local governments.
The North Carolina Office of the State Auditor (OSA) regularly conducts investigative audits of local governments and government-backed entities. A perusal of the agency’s list of investigative audits finds investigations of counties, municipalities, school systems, and a county’s Emergency Medical Services just in 2023.
This is not the first time the OSA has investigated a sheriff’s office. A 2017 investigation of the Wake County Sheriff’s Office found that sheriff’s office employees double-dipped by charging the county for hours working at the North Carolina State Fair even though the Fair was already paying them.
According to Carolina Journal, OSA has been investigating the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office for the better part of a year. OSA notified the sheriff’s office that they were investigating them in October 2022 but did not tell them why.
The investigation escalated in March when the OSA subpoenaed Wright, seeking information on a citation the sheriff’s department issued, upgrades to the county shooting range, and a file on the department’s chaplain. OSA also sought to question Cumberland County’s crime scene investigative unit employees. Wright said that OSA never told him the reason for their investigation.
Wright has fought back. The only documents he gave OSA were ones that anyone could get through public records requests. As the OSA persisted in its investigation, Wright sued Wood and the OSA, claiming that “Wood’s purview is over state agencies and that his office is a county agency.”
Central to Wright’s lawsuit is his claim that the OSA’s purview does not include county agencies. Is that true?
A review of the state auditor’s areas of examination (§ 147-64.6.(b)) finds that the auditor is indeed responsible for investigating “State agencies.” So far, so good for Sheriff Wright.
But things start to get trickier for Wright’s case when we look at how the law governing the state auditor defines “state agency” (§ 147-64.4.(4)):
Any department, political subdivision, institution, board, commission, committee, division, bureau, officer, official or any other entity for which the State has oversight responsibility, including but not limited to, any university, mental or specialty hospital, community college, or clerk of court.
“Political subdivision” is not defined in that part of the law, but it is in numerous other parts of North Carolina law. All nine definitions I found were similar to the definition in § 162B-7.(4):
“Political subdivision” includes counties, cities, towns, townships, districts, authorities and other municipal corporations and entities whether organized and existing under charter or general law.
So Wright’s claim that the state auditor’s purview does not include county agencies looks shaky at best.
In short, counties are state agencies subject to state government oversight, including investigations by the OSA.
So the OSA has oversight authority over local governments under current law.
But should it have oversight authority over local governments?
Thomas Jefferson’s adage, “The government closest to the people serves the people best,” rings as true today as it did at the Founding. It is generally better for the local governments to have as much a share of governmental power as possible. If people have a grievance or need that is appropriate for government to handle, it is better to seek redress from the government led by your neighbors than in some far-off capital.
Every level of government can be subject to mismanagement, fraud, and abuse of power, however. Part of the role of the OSA is to root that out.
In addition, having different levels of government interfering with each other enhances individual liberty. Former United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in Bond v. United States (2011) that the ultimate goal of federalism is not protecting states’ rights but protecting individual rights:
By denying any one government complete jurisdiction over all the concerns of public life, federalism protects the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power. When government acts in excess of its lawful powers, that liberty is at stake.
Of course, the state government’s relationship with local governments is not a microcosm of federalism; local governments do not exercise sovereignty under the North Carolina State Constitution like states exercise sovereignty under the United States Constitution. But that principle of protecting individual rights through a division of power between governments is performed by state oversight of local governments.
That is especially true of OSA and Local Government Commission oversight of local governments. Those state bodies do not set policies affecting local citizens but limit the power of government bodies. It is worth remembering that Wright is fighting for the right to keep his department veiled from oversight, not for his rights as a citizen.
Local governments should have the power to set policies at the behest of their constituents. Within that context, state auditor oversight of local government agencies, including the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, is legal under North Carolina law. It is also the right thing to do.