Easley won't go quietly

May 22, 2009 4:57:38 PM PDT
Former North Carolina first lady Mary Easley appeared at a news conference Thursday to defend her hiring to a $170,000 a year job at NC State.There have been repeated calls for her to step down following allegations the job was given to her as a political quid pro quo. The controversy has already forced the resignations of two high level school officials.

Easley did not speak for herself Thursday, but her attorney Marvin Schiller vigorously denied her hiring was anything but above board and said she brought valuable skills to the job.

"The indisputable evidence is that Mary is doing an outstanding job for NC State and the state of North Carolina," he said.

Schiller went on to quote several letters from UNC President Erskine Bowles and other top university officials that spoke glowingly of Easley's job performance.

"I join the board in expressing my delight that Mrs. Easley will consider continuing her public service through her work at NC State," Schiller quoted Bowles. "She will continue to be a tremendous asset."

Schiller said Easley has no plans to step down.

Bowles sent out a statement after the Easley news conference.

"It is absolutely true that I have liked and respected Mary Easley for years. I have said so numerous times - publicly, privately, in writing, and verbally. I also do not question that when she was hired by NC State in 2005, prior to my arrival at UNC, that she was considered to be an asset to the University," Bowles wrote. "But as Mrs. Easley’s attorney said today, we are now at a time that is different from when Mary Easley was hired. And I do feel that it would be in the best interest of NC State for her to move on."

NC State officials also said despite positive performance reviews, Easley should step down.

"NC State has treated Mrs. Easley with objectivity, dignity and fairness. We understand she feels she has performed her job well. But it's gone well beyond that issue. The ongoing distraction has obscured the university's accomplishments and mission and detracted from our day-to-day work. We respectfully ask that she reconsider her decision for the good of the university," said Bob Jordan, Chairman of the NC State Board of Trustees.

In 2005, Easley got a three-year contract at $80,000 a year. That was later turned into a 5-year contract worth $850,000 to run a campus speaker series and a public safety center.

Eyewitness News has obtained a 13-page report that NC State put together to justify that huge pay raise. It was presented to the UNC Board of Governors after Easley already had the new contract.

Click here to read the documents surrounding Easley's hiring (.pdf)

One part of the document talks about "Mary Easley's Value Added." It says that amounts to $163,500 a year. The report claims it would have to hire a public relations firm for $144,000 a year to book the speakers for Easley's speakers series and pay the speakers a total of $60,000. It says Easley convinced some of the people to come free of charge.

Easley and her husband - former Governor Mike Easley - are the subject of a wide ranging investigation of their activities by a grand jury and the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

They're looking at free trips plane trips that the Governor may have taken, his relationships with car dealers, and a land deal.

NC State officials deny that there was any political dealing to get Mary Easley her job, but two leaders have exited as the controversy has heightened.

First, N.C. State Provost Larry Nielsen resigned last Thursday, citing scrutiny of his role in getting Easley her job.

"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 last 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.

Both Oblinger and Bowles have called for Easley to step down, saying it would be in the best interest of the university.

Bob Jordan was chosen Wednesday to replace Campbell as NC State Board of Trustees Chairman.

Easley's job is part of the larger federal investigation of her and her husband. Subpoenas were delivered to the school on Tuesday.

Read the federal subpoenas delivered to NC State

NC State officials said that they were called to testify before the grand jury. That was supposed to happen Thursday, but it was delayed while all the required documents were gathered.

Trips investigated

On Wednesday, the investigation of trips Governor Easley took on private planes led to the resignation of a top transportation official.

North Carolina Department of Transportation board member Cameron McRae told Governor Beverly Perdue that he would step down effective immediately.

According to reports in the Raleigh News and Observer, McRae gave Easley airplane flights that neither man disclosed in campaign records - a possible violation of state law.

North Carolina law requires the disclosure of gifts over $200. 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 appointed McRae to a third four-year term on the transportation board in early January, just days before he left office.

Also Wednesday, the North Carolina Highway Patrol said it had complied with federal subpoenas for Easley's travel records.

Captain Everett Clendenin told Eyewitness News that the records have been turned over. Federal officials picked up the documents Tuesday afternoon. However, the Patrol did not find the Easley's 2005 travel documents which it says are missing.

Clendenin also said as of Wednesday morning, the Patrol now has a formal record keeping process for both the Governor and Lt. Governor as it relates to travel with state troopers.

Free cars investigated

The State Board of Elections and the grand jury are also looking at an arrangement where Easley's wife and son drove cars provided 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.

Land deal investigated

Investigators are also scrutinizing a Carteret County real estate development in which the former Governor bought a lot in 2005.

Some reports say the purchase of a lot in the Cannonsgate development amounted to a "sweetheart deal."

Newspaper reports say Easley got a choice waterfront lot a much lower price than similar lots were going for at the time. Easley appointed the developer and three others involved in the project to major state boards.


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