Emails show McCrory allies monitored DHHS director controversy

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMarch 27, 2013 

— Gov. Pat McCrory’s allies closely monitored damage control for the ill-fated director of the state children’s division, whose hiring last month unraveled in a controversy about her online comments and questions about her support for pre-kindergarten programs.

That scenario emerges in more than 300 pages of emails the state released to The News & Observer on Tuesday, and provides the first glimpse of how the controversy was handled. State officials have refused to talk about the public-relations blunder, nor will they release her resume.

Dianna Lightfoot quit just days before she was to begin running the Childhood Development and Early Education Department of Health and Human Services. At the time, neither department Secretary Aldona Wos nor the governor’s office would answer questions about how Lightfoot had been vetted.

As a result, The N&O and other news media filed public records requests more than six weeks ago. DHHS and the governor’s office are still refusing to talk about the issue, but the emails provide a glimpse of what happened.

Lightfoot’s hiring came as the new Republican administration scrambled to fill positions across state government, in many instances replacing key personnel with GOP loyalists.

On Feb. 5, Wos issued a news release praising Lightfoot’s background as a “top-tier executive with extensive healthcare, child welfare and education expertise.”

The next day, child care advocates and others discovered she had written a policy statement questioning the value of early childhood programs, which she said could lead to “an entitlement mentality” and make some parents less responsible. Some past Twitter comments, where she referred to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “butch” and called vaccinations “government intervention,” were also circulated.

. By that afternoon, Matthew McKillip, a McCrory campaign staffer who in January became a senior adviser at DHHS, emailed Lightfoot that reporters were asking about her policy statement.

Lightfoot was familiar with McKillip, a Georgetown University graduate who was a research assistant for the conservative American Enterprise Institute for about a year before going to work for McCrory’s campaign for governor. After McCrory won, McKillip joined the transition team and then was placed at DHHS.

On Feb. 2, Lightfoot had emailed McKillip: “You may already know that I’ve been appointed DHHS Director of Child Development and Education. Thanks for your help! It’s been great working with you and hopefully our policy paths will continue to cross.”

“Yes!,” McKillip wrote back. “Congratulations! I’m glad it’s official! Look forward to having you on board!”

Lightfoot replied to McKillip’s Feb. 6 email about reporters’ questions by saying she probably wrote that policy statement in 2000, and that there had been research since then about the benefits of children’s early exposure to education. While saying programs and data must be scrutinized to determine what works, “I wholeheartedly support and want to build on what works.”

About a half hour later, she emailed McKillip that someone had just called her asking about the “butch” tweet. “Guess they’re really after me,” she wrote.

McCrory’s deputy communications director, Ricky Diaz, was looped into the emails that afternoon.

That evening Lightfoot emailed McKillip material showing that even “national experts” have also scrutinized early childhood programs. Later that night a DHHS public information officer emailed McKillip and Diaz that a reporter was saying Lightfoot’s Twitter account had been deleted.

About the same time, Tony Almeida, McCrory’s top economy and jobs adviser, emailed McKillip asking him to call him the next morning before 8:30 a.m.

A few minutes before 8:30 a.m. Feb. 7, McKillip emailed Diaz with a list of online issues related to Lightfoot, including tweets about Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Fox News, her nonprofit organization’s involvement in a Bush White House adolescent health program, and her involvement with a South Carolina political action committee.

About noon, McKillip emailed Joe Hauck – a senior adviser at DHHS working on a five-month contract who used to work at the company Wos started, New Breed Logistics – a statement saying Lightfoot had informed Wos that morning that she didn’t want to be a distraction and would not take the job. Soon after, the statement was released to reporters.

Additional emails show that McKillip told the DHHS public information officer that there would be no further explanation for reporters.

Lightfoot, 61, lives with her mother in Winston-Salem and, according to a financial statement she submitted to the state Ethics Commission, listed her only employment as with the small nonprofit group that she co-founded, the National Physicians Center for Family Resources. The DHHS job would have paid her $110,000 a year.

Before moving to North Carolina, she had been living in Alabama, where she was a candidate in 1997 to run that state’s welfare agency. Her North Carolina ethics statement says she has been involved in political campaigns, without further details.

Lightfoot could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

A new director of the state division hasn’t been hired yet.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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