Part 2

Law helps to hide cronyism

Political favors go undetected

Staff WriterMarch 15, 2010 

  • The law does not allow the automatic release of employee applications, hiring panel reports, job candidate recommendations and other information that helps explain why someone won a public job and someone else did not. Should this information be made public?

    Gov. Bev Perdue

    "This information should remain confidential. Applicants have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they provide personal information on state applications. Additionally, as state agencies seek the very best people to employ, there must be an opportunity for frank and honest discussion of an applicant's strengths and weaknesses."

    Senate leader Marc Basnight

    "As it pertains to the search for chancellors, absolutely not. I would keep that just as we have it. I had this conversation with [UNC President] Erskine [Bowles] and others in the university setting. Their fear is that the pool of candidates would be reduced if their employers knew they had applied."

    House Speaker Joe Hackney

    "I'm not opposed to looking at it. I'd like to hear the arguments by the people who work in personnel and know the reasons why the law is the way it is."

    Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger

    "Yes. Not all, but some additional information should be made available to the public. Again keeping the distinction between employment-related and personal information, once an applicant is employed, the application, properly redacted to remove personal and certain other information about previous employments, should be part of the public record. Letters of recommendation, particularly if from an elected official or a political appointee, should be available. We should look further into whether hiring panel recommendations should be made public in instances where the panel recommendation of a particular candidate is overruled."

    House Minority Leader Paul Stam

    "No. The hiring process is clearly subjective, and the judgment of which candidate is the most qualified would vary from one hiring official to another. Certainly, the public cannot be allowed to second guess the hiring process when many factors are involved."

  • This is Sunshine Week, when journalists, librarians, lawyers, educators and other advocates of open government highlight the value of freedom of information. Our coverage begins with a three-part series on the state's restrictive personnel law. Here's what you'll find in The News & Observer:

    Sunday: What stays hidden can be dangerous.

    Today: Politically connected hires get obscured, too.

    Tuesday: Just how big was that raise?

    Wednesday: Coverage of Sunshine Day in Greensboro.

    Friday: North Carolinians' attitudes about open government.

In 2005, the state Division of Motor Vehicles hired Sherry Creech as a nurse consultant at the top of her pay grade, making her among the best paid in the division. Shortly after she arrived, she persuaded the division to send her to examiner school, learning skills that DMV officials later said weren't necessary for her job.

The state spent $8,900 in salary and expenses for Creech to attend the school near Fayetteville, including giving her a $768 examiner's uniform she would never need to wear for her job. She stayed in a hotel for a month.

Today, state officials say it was a waste of money. They no longer send nursing consultants, who determine whether people are physically fit to drive, to the school. Creech, who continues to work at DMV, declined to comment.

None of this spending makes sense unless you know that Creech was one of many DMV hires recommended by a long-standing political patronage boss, Eddie Carroll Thomas of Greene County.

Patronage, nepotism and cronyism can be serious problems for state government, but the state's restrictive personnel law makes them almost impossible to catch. The public has no access to employee applications and résumés. Recommendations from political officials or campaign fundraisers are off-limits. Applicant review panels work behind closed doors.

One consequence is government operated by those in the know, not necessarily those best qualified to serve. Sometimes the employees aren't thoroughly vetted.

These kinds of hires have led to misuse and waste in state and local governments. Federal authorities have investigated how former Gov. Mike Easley's wife, Mary, won a job followed by an 88 percent pay increase at N.C. State University. The university initially cited the personnel law in not releasing key documents showing Mike Easley's involvement in creating Mary Easley's job.

Investigators also have obtained information regarding politically connected hires within DMV.

Some states, including Florida and South Carolina, make much hiring information public. They protect home addresses, Social Security numbers and other personal information by redacting it.

In North Carolina, it takes extraordinary circumstances for hiring details to become public. In Creech's case, the DMV launched an internal investigation after learning that two top job candidates were dumped in place of two others, including one recommended by Thomas. The N&O persuaded the state Transportation Department to release the investigation by contending that DMV's integrity was at stake.

That investigation turned up roughly 20 employees within DMV's Driver and Vehicle Services section who were alleged to have received Thomas' help in getting hired, promoted or assigned to jobs that allowed them to boost their paychecks with overtime and mileage. Six of them were Thomas' relatives.

All told, the investigation found at least $80,000 wasted on expenses related to these employees. The investigation did not assess the cost of hiring people who were less qualified, save for $911 in overtime paid to an examiner to tutor a Thomas-recommended hire so she could pass the examiner's school.

DMV patronage

At the same time Thomas wielded his influence within Driver and Vehicle Services, DMV Commissioner George Tatum brought in several friends and political helpers to the agency's law enforcement arm - the License and Theft Bureau. They too received special treatment that conflicted with their public duties.

Tatum, a former Cumberland County register of deeds, resigned in 2007 after he helped a friend get a replica of a 1937 Ford truck titled as the real thing, a move that had saved the friend hundreds of dollars in highway use taxes.

DMV is the perfect home for patronage. It employs roughly 1,500 people, many in 9-to-5 customer service positions that do not require advanced degrees or hard labor.

Mike Robertson, an appointee of Gov. Bev Perdue and a former director of the Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement, took over the agency a year ago. He has spent much of his time cleaning up one personnel mess after another.

He discovered that the bureau's training director, Neil "Rusty" Callahan, a Tatum hire, had been working out of a DMV office in Elizabethtown -- close to his home but 100 miles from Raleigh. Few if any training exercises were taking place there, Robertson said.

Robertson also discovered that Callahan and three other Tatum hires - Marva Courtney, Brian Hawkins and WilliamToman - had not attended the bureau's basic training school, which grounds employees in DMV laws and procedures.

"I noticed a lack of understanding ... that I think would have been remedied in a basic school," Robertson said.

Hawkins has since gone through the school. The others left. Robertson said Callahan retired after being told he would have to work out of Raleigh. Toman, a district supervisor in Cumberland County, was charged in September with felonies related to his purchase of three lawnmowers that authorities say he knew had been stolen.

The current federal investigation involving DMV has produced a list of employees who were recommended for jobs, promotions or special assignments by Thomas and powerful lawmakers such as former Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat, and former state Sen. John Kerr, a Goldsboro Democrat and Finance Committee co-chairman. The DMV redacted the employees' names, citing the state personnel law, but confirmed nearly all have worked or are working for the agency.

Robertson said he can't prevent the politically connected from suggesting whom to hire, but he said he now requires them to put it in writing.

Fewer applicants?

Representatives of employee groups and local governments oppose efforts to make public how hires and appointments are conducted. They say the exposure would drive away good candidates.

Ellis Hankins, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, said keeping the applicants secret "clearly increases the applicant pool" for professional positions in government. But Florida and South Carolina municipal associations do not report that they have poorly run governments because some candidates choose not to apply. And they are less likely to run into the situation that embarrassed Fayetteville State University two years ago, when it hired a provost who lasted less than two months before quitting.

The search committee that recommended Carol Blackshire-Belay had no idea that she had unsuccessfully accused her former employer of sexism and racism, The Fayetteville Observer reported. FSU Chancellor James Anderson told the newspaper that the university would no longer conduct searches in secret.

"The provost job is too important to take any chances," Anderson said.

dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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