Oblinger: Mary Easley should step down

May 18, 2009 4:05:01 PM PDT
N.C. State Chancellor James Oblinger said Monday that he thinks the wife of former Gov. Mike Easley should step down from her job at the university.The comment was made during a discussion with reporters following two top level resignations at NC State over her hiring last week.

First, N.C. State Provost Larry Nielsen resigned on Thursday, citing scrutiny of his role in getting Easley her job. The former first lady got a three-year contract at $80,000 a year in 2005 and later a 5-year contract worth $850,000 to run a campus speaker series and a public safety center.

"On Sunday, May 10, The News & Observer published a story implying that I was hired as a political favor in exchange for my hiring of Mrs. Easley. This implication is preposterous," said Nielsen in his resignation letter to faculty.

Then on Friday, the president of the North Carolina university system asked for and received the resignation of the chairman of the North Carolina State University board of trustees because of his role in hiring Easley.

UNC President Erskine Bowles said N.C. State board chairman McQueen Campbell told him he had mentioned to N.C. State's chancellor that Mary Easley wanted to change jobs.

Campbell has said he played no part in Easley getting her job.

"I am not resigning because I have acted inappropriately. Both the chancellor and the provost have communicated publicly and independently that the hiring process of Mary Easley was free from any improper influence," Campbell wrote in a resignation letter to Governor Beverly Perdue.

Click here to read the letter (.pdf)

When asked about his own role in Easley's hiring, Oblinger told Eyewitness News he has no recollection of a conversation about her being available or interested in a job with the university. He reiterated previous statements that there was no connection between Easley's hiring and Larry Nielsen's promotion to Provost.

Republicans were quick to jump in on the topic Monday. In a statement sent to the media, NC Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger said "I support NCSU Chancellor James Oblinger’s decision to call for Mary Easley’s resignation. The scandal surrounding her hiring has cast a shadow on the University. It would be in the best interest of all parties if Mrs. Easley resigned her post immediately."

"If Mrs. Easley does not voluntarily leave her post, I will ask Governor Perdue and Legislative Democrats to join me in supporting legislation to eliminate state funding for her position," he continued.

Former Governor Mike Easley and his wife have been under intense scrutiny since he left office. A series of reports in the Raleigh News and Observer have examined his relationships with car dealers, a land deal, and free trips he reportedly took.

Last week, the FBI issued a subpoena for travel records and the State Board of Elections is also investigating.

"I have been asked to represent the Mike Easley (Campaign) Committee," John Wallace Counsel to the Mike Easley Campaign Committee said in a statement. "As counsel to the Committee, I have recently approached the State Board of Elections to indicate the desire of the Committee to address any matters arising from certain flights said to have been made by Governor Easley during his term in office. The Board staff and counsel have indicated their willingness to address these matters with the Committee. IT is the goal of the Committee to work with the Board through its processes to bring these matters to an appropriate resolution."

A grand jury has spent time looking at an arrangement where Easley's wife and son drove cars provides by car dealerships for free. In a past interview with Eyewitness News, Easley said he owned the cars, but DMV records show Easley bought a used GMC Yukon which his son had been driving two days after our interview.

Mary Easley also drove a car that was characterized as "a loaner" for months.

Published reports also say Easley took at least 25 flights on private jets during his final six years in office. He didn't pay for some of the flights while the value of other trips exceed state campaign contribution limits.

Several of the businessmen who provided the planes to Easley were appointed to the boards of state agencies and universities, The News & Observer reported.

Easley may have taken even more flights on private planes. Records from the Highway Patrol, which travel with and provide security for the governor, are missing for all of 2005 and other significant stretches, the paper reported.

The flights could break ethics and campaign finance rules. North Carolina law requires the disclosure of gifts over $200, and Easley didn't report some of the free flights. The law also prevents corporations from donating to campaigns and limits individuals to giving $4,000 to a candidate in an election cycle. The market value of many of the flights appears to be over $4,000 or enough to top the legal limit when combined with other contributions. It can cost up to $1,300 an hour to charter the kind of private plane the governor needs to travel.

Easley and his wife have refused all interview requests, but in a statement released to the media over the weekend, Easley said he was "comfortable" with the scrutiny of his affairs.

"I am comfortable with the federal authorities collecting and reviewing all records relating to my 30 years of public service to the people of North Carolina," Easley said. "I am confident of the outcome, and we look forward to moving on with our private lives," he wrote.

Interestingly, if federal charges were brought, the job of prosecuting would fall to U.S. Attorney George Holding - who is a holdover from the Bush administration. The Obama administration has not gotten around to replacing him, and now Republicans say asking him to resign - even if that is the normal procedure as a new administration takes over - would send the wrong message.

"Replacing him now with a Democrat with ties to the Easley administration would send the wrong signal to North Carolina's citizens about the commitment of Barack Obama and Kay Hagan to cleaning up the culture of corruption that plagues state government," offered Linda Daves, Chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. "Like Patrick Fitzgerald who is overseeing the prosecution of former Illinois Governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, Mr. Holding should be allowed to complete the current investigations because he is the best man for the job."


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