Easley’s tangled web coming unraveled
Last week, NC State University Provost Larry Nielsen and Chairman of the Trustees McQueen Campbell both tendered their resignations. Normally this news would have had little or no impact outside the campus walls, but these particular farewells have far-reaching implications, and serve as a reminder of an administration we’d rather forget. Nielsen had been hired under strange circumstances. As interim provost he was never on the list of candidates for the permanent post, but in June 2005 Nielsen was unexpectedly given the position. He then coincidentally created a high-paying job for former First Lady Mary Easley, and just months before her husband left office, Nielsen engineered an 88-percent raise for Queen Mary, bumping her salary to $850,000 for five years. According to the News & Record, Mrs. Easley was initially hired to “oversee a lecture series and teach three courses.” Later, Nielsen justified the first lady’s monumental pay hike, saying that she was taking on additional duties, like working with the Center for Public Safety Leadership and Strategic Legal Partnership. Of course we all know how some of these egghead think tanks operate when it comes to naming highprofile people to be involved. Take for instance John Edwards who agreed to head up the poverty center at UNC-
Chapel Hill. According to one source I spoke with, Edwards was hardly ever at the center. Even so, he was only paid $40,000. Mary Easley was merely associated with the CPSLSLP, and yet she rakes in over $170,000 per year. Meanwhile, McQueen Campbell, who worked closely with Nielsen, had been appointed to the university trustees by his political crony, then- Gov. Mike Easley. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Campbell frequently bragged about his influence with the governor, so it is not hard to understand why we lowly voters might assume that the job for Mary Easley, like the appointments of Nielsen and Campbell, were all part of a chummy scheme, funded by taxpayer dollars. But the saga gets worse and more sordid. Last week while Campbell and Nielsen were throwing in the towel, the media was gettingits first look at Mike Easley’s travel records, which Gov. BeverlyPerdue had ordered to be released. The result was information that hastriggered investigations by the State Board of
Elections and the convening of a federal grand jury. Poring over long-hidden Easley documents, the News & Observer foundthat the governor spent so much time at his Southport beach home, thetroopers assigned to his security detail had to rent a house to be nearhim.
That rental cost taxpayers $72,000. Otherexpenses for the troopers exceeded $40,000, and the cost oftransporting the Easleys back and forth to the beach was more than$60,000. The governor’s records also reveal that he hadfrequently denied many of his trips to Southport, and that he hadfailed to report a number of free campaignrelated excursions as well.That has the State Board of Elections looking into possible violationsof campaign finance laws. Meanwhile, another matter being investigatedis how Easley was able to purchase a $1.2 million marina lot inCarteret County for a mere $555,000. The broker of that sweetheart dealwas none other than McQueen Campbell. The NC resignations andthe federal and state probes are giving us a better glimpse into theEasley’s lifestyle and excesses. And it reveals the lengths to whichtheir political cronies went to serve the royal couple. NeitherNielsen nor Campbell admit any wrongdoing, but I particularly likedNielsen’s rationale for resigning as provost. He said that scrutiny ofthe Mary Easley hiring has become an “embarrassing distraction” forhim. That’s the best line I’ve heard since the Menendez brothersmurdered their parents, then asked the jury for sympathy because theyhad no mom and dad. At worst, the former governor and his buddies coulddo jail time. At the very least, they were guilty of abusing theiroffice. Those issues will be sorted out by the appropriate agencies.What isn’t being addressed is how the Easleys and their servants wereallowed to operate in a vacuum. Some in the media are nowcriticizing the state auditor and the State Board of Elections for notmonitoring and questioning Easley’s activities. But news folk shouldunderstand that state employees, whether appointed or hired, don’t wantto rock the boat and risk losing their jobs. It is a cowardly existenceto be sure, but one that is not without company from the media itself,which frequently gave Easley a pass on his missteps. In theend, the Easley scandals should be a wake-up call for all of us. Themedia needs to do a better job. The public should demand moretransparency in government. And state employees should have betterincentives and protections in place to help them blow the whistle onhigh-ranking perps. Meanwhile, Erskine Bowles should vacate MaryEasley’s contract, and the feds should freeze all of Mike Easley’sassets until a full accounting can be made of his use of taxpayerresources for personal use. Politicians like Easley pay a high price toobtain power. Now it’s only fair they should pay a high price forabusing it.
JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15).