NCSU job is hard to pin down

Mary Easley's workload may not match the hype

Staff WritersJune 8, 2009 

  • The executive committee of the N.C. State University Board of Trustees held an emergency teleconference meeting Sunday night, university officials said in a news release.

    In addition, a hastily called meeting of the school's full board of trustees will take place at 2 p.m. today, NCSU officials said late Sunday.

    Burley Mitchell, a trustee and former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said he was unaware of the subject of today's meeting.

    Numerous NCSU and university system officials declined to react to disclosures in Sunday's News & Observer that a payout package for former NCSU Provost Larry Nielsen will give him a larger salary for much longer than previously disclosed, a deal that will pay him an additional $267,500 to transition back to a faculty role by 2012. NCSU Chancellor James Oblinger offered a different account of his payment package from what has now been revealed.

    Reached at his Chapel Hill office late Sunday evening, UNC system President Erskine Bowles declined to comment.

Mary Easley's $170,000-a-year job at NCSU -- which seems to be vanishing one big bite at a time -- is an unusual mix of politics, insider connections and academia, according to a picture of her work that emerges from internal university e-mail, documents and interviews.

Amid calls for her to step down, the state's former first lady has held on to the job. It bears a single title, executive in residence, given when former NCSU Provost Larry Nielsen retooled her post and gave her an 88 percent raise last summer. The job, though, is actually four part-time roles cobbled together. She was to create and direct a public safety center; run a speakers series, which she started in 2005; coordinate law-related academic programming; and teach half a class each semester.

NCSU Chancellor James Oblinger has said she is unique for the position. And UNC system President Erskine Bowles called it "a big, complex job" at the time of her raise.

But it's unclear from the records and interviews whether it ever was as big or as difficult as billed. Easley sometimes picked up the phone and ordered a speaker from an agency. She keeps irregular hours. There are serious questions about whether she has performed all the duties required under one part of her job description. And the salary she gets for teaching is far above the amount that another instructor is getting for the same work.

Her job is at the center of a mushrooming series of resignations and other inquiries, including a federal probe. It was strongly backed for years by Oblinger and Nielsen.

The job for Easley, who has four years left on her contract, has come under intense scrutiny after recent reports showed that a close friend and NCSU trustee, McQueen Campbell, was involved in her hiring. Campbell stepped down as a trustee and chairman of the board after his role came to light.

Oblinger and Bowles have called on Easley to resign as well. She has refused.

A week and a half ago, the university put a moratorium on new academic centers like the public safety effort Easley was to lead. Then, on Thursday, a House budget committee voted to cut the funding for the speakers series. If that effort is successful, only tasks that had been billed as 35 percent of her workload will be intact -- her teaching and academic programming work.

Easley didn't return calls seeking comment. At a news conference last month, though, her attorney, Marvin Schiller handed out off-the-charts positive reviews from Nielsen and Bowles.

Schiller said Friday that he had just reviewed her personnel file.

"If there is a single negative word in there, it's written in invisible ink," he said.

Working connections?

The university justified hiring Easley in 2005 without a job search by saying that she was "unique" for the speakers job and that her connections, many of them developed while her husband, Mike Easley, was the state's attorney general and two-term governor, would help lure top names to campus. She had previously been a lawyer and then taught law courses at N.C. Central University in Durham. Easley, a Democrat, was governor from 2001 until January.

But a review of documents makes it clear that, although Mary Easley worked her friends to get speakers, more often than not it didn't work out. She tried for the king of Jordan, for Supreme Court justices, for former Vice President Al Gore and other big names. The speakers she got are not all as lofty.

In one e-mail message, she wrote to Nielsen that she didn't want to bring in the likes of Ken Thompson, then the CEO of Wachovia Bank in Charlotte, because she was "hoping to come up with someone who would be instantly recognizable to the student population." Thompson was the series' first speaker.

And take David Gergen, a former presidential adviser who regularly appears on CNN. Gergen spoke at NCSU in September 2006. Easley engaged him in the same way scores of other organizations across the nation locate speakers: She contacted the Washington Speakers Bureau.

Other speakers were found the same way, including Robert Reich and Donna Shalala, Cabinet secretaries under President Bill Clinton.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley's visit is an example of how Easley's contacts did help land a speaker. But her efforts, and fundraising surrounding some speakers, have also raised questions from government reformers.

E-mail messages show that Bradley, who is on the board of directors of the lighting technology company Raydiance, had a meeting with Gov. Easley, Mary Easley and others in February 2008.

Ed Turlington, a lobbyist who was once a deputy campaign manager for Bradley and also Gov. Easley's pick for party chairman in 2005, made the contact on behalf of Mary Easley afterward.

He wrote to Bradley a month later:

"As I discussed with you yesterday, our friend Mary Easley is going to invite you to speak ... You remember she mentioned this to you when we were meeting with Governor Easley with the Raydiance people on February 26."

Bradley received $5,000 for his talk, which was about Russia.

Easley also got some speakers at a discount. Clinton waived his typical fee, appearing this year in exchange for travel expenses and other costs that totaled more than $15,000. The Easleys campaigned for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 election.

Records also show that to pay for speakers, Easley turned to entities with interests before state government, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and Progress Energy. Combined, those two gave $60,000. Other donors included AT&T and Bank of America. Checks also came from state alcohol boards, which sponsored a visit by the surgeon general.

One donor check for $1,000 came from the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association to help sponsor a panel on "green" initiatives. The association has been registered to lobby every year since 2005.

Easley secured the donation through former state Sen. Fountain Odom, who handles legal work for the association and whose wife served as Department of Health and Human Services secretary under Easley.

"Hi Fountain," Mary Easley wrote in October 2007. "Would you call your folks @ the NCSEA and let them know about this opp to help sponsor this event?"

Odom replied, "They are standing by for your requests and orders."

Advocates of government reform say such interactions are too cozy.

"The big deal here is that she raised the money while she was the wife of a sitting governor and while he was in a position to help these people," said Jane Pinsky, who heads a coalition of groups seeking lobbying and ethics reforms. "Once he's no longer governor, it's a wholly different situation."

Tough job to track

It's hard to say how much time the former first lady spends on the job or at any one task. University officials have declined to produce records tracking her work. Easley hasn't responded to a request made more than a week ago for her work calendar, which is a public record.

Even with accurate records, it may be tricky to understand where Easley has been and what she has done on any given day. Schiller, her attorney, said during the news conference last month that Easley's supervisors understood she would work at odd hours and outside the office.

"Historically -- and this is true of academics, whether you're in Mary's position or some other department in the university -- you do a lot of work from home," said Schiller, responding to journalists who had staked out her office for several days without seeing her. "And so Mary does some of her work from home.

"The appropriate supervisors at the university know that. So she comes and goes and does things at night and on the weekends, and she's been around."

But the university's lone pre-law adviser, Mary A. Tetro, has seen little of Easley. The two were to work together to develop new seminars, internships and other law-related programs. For the academic year that ends in three weeks, their collaboration has consisted of a single formal meeting, a handful of e-mail messages and a few casual conversations after chance encounters, Tetro said in an interview.

Their lone meeting came 11 months into the academic year. It was the same day that Oblinger and Bowles called on Easley to resign.

Tetro also said that she was not aware of Easley attending any of about 20 events that Tetro organized for pre-law students.

Easley also is part of a team working with Campbell University to create a dual graduate degree in law and public administration.

Jerrell D. Coggburn, chairman of the Public and International Affairs Department, said that he and another faculty member did most of the nuts-and-bolts work, but that Easley performed well.

Her work has consisted of a few meetings -- "more than two, less than five," Coggburn said -- but a goodly amount of work took place via e-mail and phone calls.

Easley was a key player in getting the idea started, he said, and since then has acted as a taskmaster and facilitator, making sure officials from both universities worked together smoothly. She also was a troubleshooter when the tricky process was slowed by administrative hurdles, he said.

"I think she did what was expected and did a good job of it," he said.

She also met expectations at the smallest of her four tasks: teaching.

Still, she is paid nearly five times as much for that part of her work as someone with similar qualifications doing the same job -- and nearly five times as much as she herself made teaching the same kind of class before her job was retooled last year.

Easley was tasked with teaching half a class for police supervisors in the fall and half a class in the spring. Teaching the other half was Ike Avery, a former state deputy attorney general. He was paid about $2,700 per semester, or a total of about $5,400, said James R. Horner, director of the popular Administrative Officers Management Program.

Before Easley's job was upgraded last year, she was paid the same as Avery, Horner said.

The deal for Easley struck last summer allocated that work to 15 percent of her job; and 15 percent of her salary is $25,500.

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

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