Top-level talks led to job for Easley

Staff WriterJune 9, 2009 

Newly released documents show that Mary Easley's N.C. State University job was arranged at the highest levels of state government and that then-Gov. Mike Easley was directly involved.

E-mail messages that university lawyers made public Monday show that a key aide to Mike Easley approached top N.C. State officials in April 2005, touching off a negotiation that resulted in a position for the first lady. The records show that James Oblinger, the university's chancellor, and trustee McQueen Campbell, a longtime friend of the Easleys, were integral to the creation of the position.

Averell "Ace" Smith, a political operative and friend of the former governor, downplayed Mike Easley's role, saying late Monday that it was "false and misleading to in any way insinuate that Gov. Easley 'orchestrated' Mary Easley's hiring."

Until now, officials had said no one was involved in Mary Easley's hiring besides former Provost Larry Nielsen, who records show created the position with a three-year contract to oversee a speakers series and help teach a class.

Oblinger has maintained that he could not recall any events surrounding the creation of Mary Easley's job, which was filled without a search.

UNC system President Erskine Bowles said he first read the e-mail messages Friday.

"Those e-mails made me feel sick," Bowles said. "I had believed the chancellor. ... But when I saw these e-mails and the extent of the involvement, it was much more difficult for me to believe."

Talks between Bowles and Oblinger took place over the weekend, Bowles said, and Oblinger then offered his resignation.

The e-mail messages show that the job discussions were started by Dan Gerlach, who was Easley's chief fiscal adviser and now heads a foundation that distributes money from the national tobacco settlement. Gerlach handed off the issue to Campbell. The ties between Campbell and the Easleys were reported in a two-part series in The News & Observer in May.

Mary Easley secured the position a month after the first talks. Last summer, she received a new, five-year, $850,000 contract that officials say Nielsen handled.

Campbell had denied speaking about Mary Easley's job with anyone but later acknowledged that he may have passed information to Oblinger.

The e-mail messages released Monday show Campbell, who at the time headed the trustees' personnel committee, was more deeply involved.

Bowles and N.C. State Board of Trustees Chairman Bob Jordan both said the documents alone do not indicate anything criminal took place. A federal grand jury is probing issues surrounding the former governor, including the Mary Easley hiring. The e-mail messages have been given to federal authorities.

Bowles said the chancellor should have been more forthcoming.

"If he had just said, when asked about it, that, 'Yes, they came to me; I thought it was a good idea; I passed it along to the people who work here for them to explore and follow up on,' then I think that would have been the end of it," Bowles said.

"But that didn't happen."

Quiet discussions

The e-mail messages indicate that Gerlach made the first contacts on behalf of the Easleys quietly. "People up the food chain don't know," Gerlach wrote.

In an interview Monday, Gerlach said that the governor approached him about possibilities at N.C. State because Gerlach was teaching a course there. At the time, Mary Easley was teaching law at N.C. Central. Gerlach said he didn't think that it would raise many eyebrows for her to shift from one school to the other.

Mike Easley "said the first lady's contract is coming up at N.C. Central and, you know, it's kind of a hassle driving all the way over there, and she's done what's she done over there, and is thinking about doing something different," Gerlach said. "He kind of ruminated about this -- would you check it. Would there be anything for her to do over there in law or business?"

Gerlach said he contacted Jim Svara, then head of the political science department. "I was feeling him out," Gerlach said. Gerlach said the governor asked him to forward his exchanges to Campbell, who took it from there.

Campbell sent the e-mail exchange to Andy Willis, who was lobbying lawmakers and the governor on behalf of N.C. State. Willis is now Gov. Beverly Perdue's lobbyist.

That same day, Oblinger wrote to Campbell, saying Mary Easley would be a welcome addition:

"My question to her is money related in that they (in poly sci) are very much into the pay-by-the-course mode vs. contract. Any sense as to the importance of a contract to the first lady? I recall you using that word this morning along with a salary figure."

Campbell wrote back to Oblinger, appearing to refer obliquely to a salary number they discussed.

"I think that is more what he had in mind to try and get her at least where she is now," Campbell wrote. "I can speak more in person later."

The next day, Oblinger wrote to Campbell, "I must speak with Provost as this is an academic matter -- appointment, contract, etc. Am thinking contract mediated by me but discussion of subject matter by the dean with her, ok? Will need to speak with you about a couple of other things related to this."

A day after that, on April 29, 2005, Oblinger wrote to Campbell: "MCQ: We're ready to move on this; next step is in the Mansion, I think."

Campbell wrote back: "Just chatted with the Gov and he plans to talk to her this afternoon and will call me back after he has had this conversation. I will be in touch when he calls."

The next day, Campbell wrote to Oblinger: "The Gov called me back today and Mary is interested and would like to meet with you as soon as possible... I could introduce her to you then I would leave you two to your business."

Oblinger replied to Campbell that he was booked up with other events, suggesting, "perhaps she'd meet with Provost Nielsen (?)"

Nielsen then took over and began working out a plan for Mary Easley.

On May 19, Nielsen wrote to Campbell that he had met with Mary Easley and two deans, and that the job was settled.

Campbell replied to Nielsen: "Great! The meeting obviously went well and I chatted with the Gov late last week and he says she's very excited about it."

Easley was hired May 26 by Nielsen, who was interim provost at the time. He waived a search and created the position as part of the provost's office.

In a statement issued Monday, Oblinger said he did not recall any of it until reading the e-mail messages.

"The e-mails themselves indicate that I referred the issue to the appropriate university officials and they indicate no impropriety in the process," he wrote.

Easley's 'sterling record'

Mike Easley's friend, Smith, said Monday that Mary Easley was hired on her merits.

"Mary Easley was hired for her sterling record at NCCU, as a prosecutor and the unique skills she brought to this position," Smith said. "Furthermore, this has nothing to do with the present contract. Three people discussed that contract -- the provost, the chancellor and Mary Easley. It is unfortunate that people want to play political football with the distinguished career of a talented woman."

Jordan, the board chairman who is a former lieutenant governor and longtime N.C. State supporter, said questions about Oblinger's actions were "nitpicking."

"There are some things we didn't know all about," he said in a news conference. "In nothing we have examined have we seen any criminal intent or any intent to defraud. ... It's not fair to come in here and try to nitpick little stuff to try to tell a story. Y'all did the chancellor. Y'all took off after him and these little nitpicking things."

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