Hefty pension for Mary Easley

A pension deal for Mary Easley perhaps should have been vetted in court.

December 3, 2012 

It’s understandable why N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson and his board of trustees would want this whole Mary Easley/firing/pension story to go away.

After all, the controversy over the boost in pay the former first lady received in 2008, as part of a five-year contract, resulted in the resignation of a chancellor and a provost, the resignation of a trustees’ chairman alleged to have assisted in landing Mary Easley a better deal at NCSU (he said the hiring was straight-up) and considerable embarrassment to the university.

But there’s a legitimate issue here about an out-of-court settlement NCSU made with Mary Easley, wife of former Gov. Mike Easley, to stop her pursuit of legal action contending that she was wrongfully fired. The settlement’s costs will in effect fall on the state retirement plan. Though Mary Easley worked only a fraction of a five-year deal that would have paid her $170,000 a year for some teaching, running a speaker’s bureau, serving as executive in residence and other duties, under the settlement she will receive a state pension based in part on a salary figure that factors in three years at that $170,000 salary.

The job didn’t happen, as Mrs. Easley was dismissed when her salary boost and new job were questioned as to whether they were arranged on the strength of influence exerted by her husband. But for purposes of the settlement, the state pension plan will play make-believe.

Courtroom route

That is troubling. From Woodson’s standpoint, he wants this dispute to go away. And the way he looks at it, he got out cheap: The university, from private money, paid about $90,000 into the retirement system and the state health plan to help set up the requirements for the retirement arrangement.

Mary Easley also must pay money into the pension system to reimburse the state for pension money she’d been receiving. She was “un-retired” for purposes of this legal settlement and thus had to pay back pension money she’d already gotten. All this has to do with following the rules of the retirement system and making the settlement deal work.

Clearly, NCSU’s lawyers and those from the state Attorney General’s Office felt a settlement was preferable to an expensive and risky court fight. Attorneys are paid to consider those factors.

But it might have been of value to the citizens who watched the controversies around Mary Easley’s employment deal to see it laid out in court. This whole saga, after all, took down a chancellor and his deputy, both of whom supported an 88 percent salary hike in a new N.C. State contract for the first lady.

Big deal

Now, Mary Easley will draw an annual pension of over $80,000 a year, more than double the pension she was receiving.

Didn’t the magnitude of this deal, following the controversy that drove it, deserve more of a public airing than it received? Mrs. Easley didn’t work the time or get the salary with which she’s being credited. But she is getting the pension. The state would have been justified in sticking to its guns and making Mrs. Easley prove her case, if she could.

State employees who are earning or will earn pensions much smaller than Mrs. Easley’s, and other citizens distressed by the storm over the NCSU campus that resulted from Mrs. Easley’s job status, might have benefited from the sunshine a court case could have brought to this matter.

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