McCrory campaign aides now working at DHHS have same pay, less experience than predecessors

lbonner@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2013 

Two prominent employees at the state Department of Health and Human Services whose salaries have been criticized in recent days are making about the same as their predecessors – even though they have far less work experience.

Matt McKillip, 24, is the chief policy officer at DHHS, making $87,500 a year. He has an English degree from Georgetown University and spent 11 months as a policy research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. He then joined Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign as policy and research coordinator from April 2012 to November 2012, according to his LinkedIn page.

DHHS would not provide staff resumes. Department spokesman Ricky Diaz would not be interviewed.

The 24-year-old Diaz and his $85,000 salary have also proven controversial since first being reported last week by the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group. Diaz, who graduated from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, worked as McCrory’s campaign press secretary and, before that, for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his campaign. He has also been a real estate salesman in New Jersey, according to his LinkedIn page.

Diaz received a 37 percent raise and McKillip a 35 percent raise when they moved from McCrory’s office earlier this year to work at DHHS. McKillip had served as McCrory’s assistant policy director after he was elected until January. Diaz was deputy communications director until April.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Kim Genardo, referred questions about Diaz and McKillip to Dr. Aldona Wos, DHHS secretary and McCrory’s appointee. Wos could not be reached.

“Secretary Wos is going to put together the best team she can put together,” Genardo said.

The focus on their salaries and experience comes at a sensitive time for McCrory, with teachers watching their state pay slip to the bottom of national rankings. Teachers must work 15 years before they clear $40,000 a year on the state pay scale.

In an open letter to McCrory, an elementary school principal from Cumberland County, Peggy Raymes, asked him to visit her school where teachers worked during the summer without pay to prepare for the academic year.

“I am extremely discouraged that these two young men were given those pay increases when I have teachers in my building who have been working for eight years, and are still only receiving a ‘third year’ teacher salary,” Raymes wrote.

McKillip’s supervisor no longer works at the American Enterprise Institute, said a spokeswoman. But while McKillip was there, he contributed to its public policy blog, posting items on sugar subsidies, worker disability and the Farm Bill.

DHHS oversees the state’s Medicaid program, mental health services and is responsible for a range of public health programs. In an email to DHHS staff last week, Wos said McKillip “has been instrumental in carrying forward policy initiatives, strategic department realignment, and divisional operations and financial reviews.”

‘Deep knowledge’ required

McKillip’s predecessor from former Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration also had a background in political campaigns before becoming policy adviser. John Dervin worked for three years in Perdue’s office as policy adviser before becoming senior adviser to former acting DHHS secretary Al Delia for four months. He then became Delia’s chief of staff. Dervin was making $85,008 when he left DHHS earlier this year.

Delia said Dervin advised Perdue on health-care issues and had “deep knowledge of the department.”

The job required “knowledge of health care, knowledge of policies at the state and federal level,” Delia said.

Don Taylor, an associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University focused on health policy, said governors should be able to pick their advisers, but added: “I think the chief health policy advisor to DHHS having so little experience is surprising.”

Taylor said he would have expected the chief policy officer to have a background more like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former chief health policy adviser, who had more than 20 years experience in consulting, policy and management.

But Taylor noted that he did not know McKillip and wrote in an email that he may be “the Jeff Gordon of health policy.”

McCrory: Two well qualified

The head communication job did not have a permanent occupant for about a year, and Diaz took over for an acting director who is still with the agency and makes about $78,500.

From 2009 until earlier this year, the job was held by Renee McCoy, who worked for 25 years at local television stations. McCoy had also been director of public affairs for the N.C. Department of Correction in 1986. When she left DHHS this year she was making $89,900.

Last week, McCrory defended the salaries and backgrounds of McKillip and Diaz, telling an Associated Press reporter: “Frankly, these two young people are very well qualified and they are being paid for jobs at which that’s the pay rate for that job.”

Rick French, chairman and CEO of the public relations firm French West Vaughan based in Raleigh, said Diaz is making much more than a 24-year-old public relations professional would make at a private agency.

“A $84,000 salary for a 24-year-old is something I can’t even fathom for a PR position,” he said. “They’re just not experienced enough.”

Most PR agency employees at that age are account executives making in the range of $35,000 to $45,000 a year, French said, though corporate public relations staff earn more at the beginning of their careers.

A PR Week salary survey this year shows professionals with less than five years experience making an average of $56,000 a year.

Genardo, McCrory’s spokeswoman, said it is not fair to compare Diaz’ salary with other PR jobs because he has much more responsibility.

“You misunderstand the role of the communications director,” she said. “It’s much more than PR,” and includes responsibility for inter-agency and public communications and managing a staff.

Database manager David Raynor contributed.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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