NC State provost resigns

RALEIGH He said he will be joining the faculty of the school's College of Natural Resources.

"I have made this decision with great regret, because I love the job of provost. The opportunity I have had over the past four and one-half years to help our students, faculty and staff accomplish their goals has been an honor and a source of daily satisfaction," Nielsen said in a statement posted on the school's website.

Nielsen has served as provost since January 2005. Before that, he was dean of the College of Natural Resources.

"We greatly appreciate Provost Nielsen's service to NC State," Chancellor James Oblinger said. "I wish Larry every success as he returns to the College of Natural Resources faculty and thank him for his loyalty and service to NC State during his tenure as provost."

In a letter to faculty members, Nielsen cited repeated questions from the media about his hiring former Governor Mike Easley's wife Mary to a position as executive-in-residence and senior lecturer in 2005 as his reason for stepping down.

The job - that pays $180,000 a year - includes developing a speakers program and teaching some courses.

"I have chosen to resign because of the intense public attention and criticism from my hiring of Mrs. Mary Easley and now because of questions surrounding the way I was hired as provost. The personal stress associated with this situation has simply become unbearable. Also, the embarrassment and distraction that this situation has caused our university needs to end. I hope that my resignation will prove to be the solution to these problems," he wrote.

Click here to read the letter (.pdf)

"I am dismayed that many people outside the university, and some within it, have attributed motives to my hiring of Mrs. Easley that are absolutely false and groundless. My only motive, in that action and every other that I have taken as provost, has been to enhance our university’s capacity to serve our mission. The unanimous endorsement of Mrs. Easley’s position by the UNC Board of Governors should have eliminated any doubt of the appropriateness of her hiring."

"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. The two decisions were completely independent. As the university community knows, my entry into the provost search was done at the request of many faculty, staff, students and administrators; and I was selected after undergoing a comprehensive interview process."

"I understand that some people will choose to interpret my resignation at this time as an indication that there is validity to the implications of the newspaper’s stories. I repeat that the implications of these stories are untrue. I also repeat that I am resigning because I can no longer bear the anguish of dealing with these matters on a daily basis and because I hope that the university can now put this matter to rest as well."

Former Governor Mike Easley and his family 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.

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 an 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 N&O 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.

Upon learning of Nielsen's resignation Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said the time has come for a thorough examination of Easley's affairs.

"Dr. Nielsen's resignation reinforces why Attorney General Roy Cooper needs to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate possible violations of campaign laws and ethics rules by former Gov. Mike Easley and his associates," he said. "The people of North Carolina are asking: 'Are politicians are more interested in protecting the interests of their political buddies than the citizens of this state?'"

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