The dispute between former first lady Mary Easley and university leaders over her $170,000-a-year job at N.C. State exploded into full verbal combat Thursday, but Easley didn't say a word.
Instead, her attorney, Marvin Schiller, read one glowing performance review after another, including one from one of the very officials now calling for her to resign. She stood by his side, smiling tightly and silent.
The controversy around her is a "theater of the absurd," Schiller said.
About an hour later, the university and UNC system fired back. They released written statements from UNC system President Erskine Bowles and Bob Jordan, the new chairman of the N.C. State Board of Trustees, who had been elected less than a day earlier to replace Easley family friend McQueen Campbell.
Campbell, a confidant of the Easleys who benefitted from decisions made by the governor's administration, quit last week after admitting he had suggested hiring Mary Easley in 2005.
Bowles and Jordan in their statements reiterated calls for her to step down to quiet the controversy that has enveloped the Raleigh campus.
Schiller's news conference, though, made it clear that Easley is not leaving without a fight, or perhaps a buyout of the remaining four years of her five-year, $850,000 contract.
"Mary Easley plans to continue to make outstanding contributions to North Carolina State University and the state of North Carolina," Schiller said.
University and system leaders needed to "re-reflect on their initial reactions," which may be based on the uproar over a wide-ranging federal investigation of her husband, former Gov. Mike Easley, Schiller said.
At several points in the nearly hourlong news conference, Schiller referred to Easley's contract, and to how each side in a contract is obligated to keep its end of the bargain. He repeatedly declined to say whether she would accept a buyout, though, saying that he couldn't predict the future.
A buyout would be sure to anger faculty and staff at the university, which is in the midst of a round of layoffs and pay cuts because of a state budget that's $4.5 billion in the hole.
Easley was hired to a three-year contract in 2005 at $80,000 a year, then got a raise to $170,000 in a controversial process last year. She coordinates a speakers' series and is the creator of a public safety leadership center.
Easley's job returned to the spotlight May 10, when a News & Observer story revealed new information about the creation of her position in 2005. She was hired by Larry Nielsen, then the interim provost, who created a position, waived a job search and picked her for the job.
University officials consistently said that Nielsen, who later became the permanent provost, acted on his own. But Campbell, twice appointed by Gov. Easley to the N.C. State Board of Trustees, told Bowles last week that he played a role in the hiring.
About the same time that Easley was hired, Campbell got help from the Easley administration with key development permits, and the Division of Motor Vehicles set aside two investigations involving his vehicle inspection station.
Campbell and Nielsen resigned last week, and Chancellor James Oblinger called on Mary Easley to quit, too.
Schiller said Thursday that whatever Campbell did or said, Easley had done nothing wrong and intended to stay on the job.
"Friends do all sorts of things for friends, so I don't know what that information might mean." Schiller said, replying to a question about free flights the Easleys had received in McQueen's airplane.
Indeed, he said, if Campbell had told Oblinger that Easley was looking for a job, there was nothing wrong with that. Quite the opposite: As someone charged with looking out for the interests of the university, Campbell would have been remiss not to pass along information about a good potential hire to Oblinger, Schiller said.
Bowles' gushing review
He began his remarks by reading several formal and informal performance reviews from Bowles and Nielsen. Some were nothing short of gushing.
"Mary -- when do I get to vote for you!" Bowles wrote in a note dated Nov. 2, 2005. "You constantly inspire me. You go everywhere, you bring such positive energy, your judgment is respected, and you communicate. And Mary you keep up with everyone -- you always make me feel special."
Schiller also cited previous assertions by Oblinger and Nielsen that there was nothing improper about her hiring, and cited the review and approval of her contract by the board of trustees and board of governors.
"The indisputable evidence," he said, "is that Mary Easley received the position of Executive in Residence at N.C. State University on her own merits."
Easley, herself a lawyer and a professor, stood smiling throughout the news conference, breaking her silence only to quip that Schiller needed to step back in front of the microphones after he drifted away from the lectern.
Schiller said that he had decided it was better for her not to speak, at least not yet, but he didn't say why.
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