Cooper blames the investigation on Josh Stein

The criminal investigation targeting Attorney General Josh Stein over a political ad from his 2020 campaign will have a chilling effect on free speech if it moves forward, Gov. Roy Cooper told The News & Observer on Tuesday.

“The idea that the government can prosecute a person for expressing a legitimate political opinion flies in the face of the First Amendment and threatens anyone who wants to criticize a public official,” Cooper said in a written statement.

Cooper is a Democrat, as is Stein. So is Wake County District Attorney Lorin Freeman, whose office is prosecuting the charges.

On Monday, Freeman’s office sent an SBI agent before a grand jury to present the case to indict Stein and two top aides for violating an obscure and potentially unconstitutional law that makes it a crime to tell false things about politicians.

The law does not appear to have ever been used in the nearly 100 years since it was passed in the 1930s, and now that it is being proposed, Stein’s campaign is suing in federal court to have it declared unconstitutional. Similar laws have been ruled unconstitutional in many other states.

“This is an unprecedented crackdown on free speech that should concern everyone,” Cooper said.

But before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on the Stein campaign’s request to block criminal charges pending that civil action, Freeman’s office moved forward with the grand jury. On Monday the grand jury returned a presentment, the N&O reported, which is essentially a request that prosecutors tell the grand jury to formally bring charges.

With that testimony now filed, Freeman said in an interview, Stein and his advisers could be indicted next month.

While the perjury charge itself is just a low-level misdemeanor, the state’s top law enforcement officer being charged with any crime will send shockwaves through the state’s political landscape — particularly since there has been widespread speculation about whether Stein will be gubernatorial candidate in two years, since Cooper is term-limited and cannot run again.

However, Stein has so far been mum about his plans for the next election, telling The N&O last year that “2024 is a political eternity from now.”

Cooper was attorney general before Stein, and even used him as an attorney at the NC Department of Justice. After Cooper chose not to run for re-election in 2016 and instead sought the governor’s office, Stein — who had since been elected to a state Senate seat represented by Curry — ran for attorney general to replace Cooper. He won in 2016 and again in 2020.

How did the research get here?

Stein’s research was a controversial affair from the start, even when it was still confidential. A recently leaked memo showed that the NC State Board of Elections — where these kinds of investigations begin — formally recommended that Freeman drop the case, but that he went against their advice.

The board’s memo to Freeman also noted that Stein’s accuser — his 2020 Republican challenger Jim O’Neill, the top district attorney in Forsyth County — had been accused of making false statements about Stein, which may have been a violation of the same law he had. blamed Stein for breaking.

However, Freeman only pursued an investigation of Stein. He told The N&O that while the electoral board noted that both candidates accused each other of making false statements, only O’Neill filed a formal complaint.

After the Stein investigation went public this summer, the NC Democratic Party sent a letter to Freeman asking her to investigate O’Neill as well, if she was going to investigate Stein. She refused, saying they didn’t go through the proper channels to make the request.

The N&O reported in July that Freeman received a $1,000 campaign contribution in the first quarter of 2022, while the investigation was ongoing, from O’Neill’s wife. A newer campaign report shows O’Neill’s wife, Oona, gave Freeman another $1,000 in the second quarter. The news website Axios reported this month that donors connected to O’Neill gave Freeman nearly $3,000 in total.

While Freeman continued to serve as the media face of the case, she said she recused herself early on from making any decisions about the investigation because of her professional relationships with both Stein and O’Neill . One of her top deputies, David Saacks, is leading the case.

In an email Monday night, she said she would remain exempt from making decisions about the case — such as whether to tell the grand jury to bring charges the next time it convenes.

“There are those who continue to try to build political pressure in hopes that I will intervene in this case,” Freeman wrote. “Eight years ago, when I ran for district attorney in this county, I pledged to keep politics out of the courtroom. I remain committed to that promise.”

Governor Roy Cooper announces during a press conference on Tuesday, June 9, 2020 that a new task force on racial equity in the criminal justice system will be led by NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein.

Governor Roy Cooper announces during a press conference on Tuesday, June 9, 2020 that a new task force on racial equity in the criminal justice system will be led by NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein.

For more news on North Carolina government and politics, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and NC Insider. You can find it at https://campsite.bio/underthedome or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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