Mary Easley stands her ground

The former first lady's lawyer does the talking, but she's fighting for her $170,000 NCSU job

Staff WriterMay 22, 2009 

  • Statement by UNC system President Erskine Bowles:

    "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 N.C. State in 2005, prior to my arrival at UNC, that she was considered to be an asset to the University. Furthermore, when the UNC Board of Governors and I reviewed the salary associated with her expanded duties in 2008, it was unanimously approved after significant adjustments were made. I have said this repeatedly and released publicly the information that supports the salary she was offered.

    "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 N.C. State for her to move on."

    Statement by NCSU Board of Trustees Chairman Bob Jordan:

    "One of the reasons N.C. State is a great university is that it is populated by people who put the institution first. N.C. 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."

  • Mary Easley has hired an attorney with an unusual former profession to help defend her $170,000-a-year contract with N.C. State University: Marvin Schiller holds a doctorate in philosophy and taught in the philosophy departments of Southern Methodist University and the University of Toronto before heading for Duke law school.

    Schiller also once ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the state Supreme Court shortly after switching from the Democratic Party.

    He has won several major cases against the state on behalf of workers and also won a case that changed a 200-year-old state legal doctrine, paving the way for one spouse to testify against another in certain kinds of criminal cases.

    During his 2000 judicial campaign, Schiller said that his training as a philosopher was good preparation for crafting legal arguments and reasoning. In the news conference Thursday in which he announced that Easley planned to keep her job, he cited his expertise in philosophy again when asserting that he believed Easley had acted ethically in gaining her university job.

    From staff reports

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.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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