Health Care

SBI wraps up portrait case; no action taken

The SBI has ended its probe into the purchase of a portrait by former state mental hospital director Patsy Christian without action.

The investigation was requested by the state Department of Health and Human Services in June after reports in The News & Observer about a painting of herself that Christian commissioned from J. Lee Harris, a hospital nurse who sidelined as an artist.

The artwork was paid for with vending machine revenue from John Umstead Hospital that the state budget manual says should be spent to benefit patients.

After public uproar about the portrait, Christian resigned as chief executive officer of Central Regional Hospital in Butner and was reassigned to a newly created position within the department at 95 percent of her former salary.

DHHS Secretary Dempsey Benton ordered that the portrait not hang in the new hospital and that state money paid for the artwork be recovered. Harris refunded the $572 she was paid for the "executive portrait" and its frame.

Though state law forbids the awarding of service contracts to state employees, Erik Hooks, an assistant SBI director, wrote in an Aug. 14 letter that he had concluded "no further inquiry by the SBI is necessary at this time."

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, who was consulted by Hooks, said he saw no need to prosecute Christian or Harris.

"It looked like more of a management issue to me than something that rose to the level of a criminal matter," Willoughby said.

As for what may be the most infamous portrait in state government, the department will say only that it is in private hands.

Easley marks a first

Gov. Mike Easley arrived at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, the first time he has attended a national convention.

Easley, accompanied by first lady Mary Easley, sat with the North Carolina delegation in their nosebleed seats in the Pepsi Center.

Although he has no formal speaking role at the convention, Easley said he had been asked to speak to several state delegations and other groups.

The two-term North Carolina governor is famously allergic to political events. He said he did not attend before because he had always been a candidate for state offices at the time.

"I've not always been on the same page" as the Democratic candidate, he said.

Breakfast table talk

North Carolina's seven Democratic congressmen showed up Tuesday morning for a delegation breakfast at the Democratic National Convention.

Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill said there was a strong chance that Democrats would add to their numbers by electing Larry Kissell over Republican Rep. Robin Hayes in the 8th District.

Reps. Mel Watt of Charlotte and G.K. Butterfield of Wilson urged delegates not to emphasize race in the presidential campaign despite the historic nature of Barack Obama's candidacy. Both said other issues are far more important to the country, such as the economy, the war in Iraq and the growing federal budget deficit.

"Don't let the media here or back home let you get trapped in the race question," Butterfield said.

Perdue rows her own boat

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue has permission to disown the governor.

Easley told Dome he wasn't bothered by Perdue's recent refusal to say whether Easley had done a good job.

"That's probably smart on her part. She needs to row her own boat," Easley said.

Perdue, the Democratic nominee for governor, debated Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate, last week in Durham. McCrory repeatedly characterized Perdue as part of the Easley administration.

After the debate, Perdue responded to questions about McCrory's jabs by emphasizing her independence from Easley. (The lieutenant governor is elected separately, not as part of a team ticket.) She was asked whether Easley has done a good job.

Perdue praised Easley's handling of the economic crisis he walked into in 2001 -- plummeting tax revenues and rising state expenses.

"He helped put this state back on the pathway to prosperity," Perdue said, "and I think he's done a tremendous job on that issue."

On that issue? Well, has he done a good job?

"I'm not one to evaluate people. I never evaluated Jim Hunt. I didn't evaluate Jim Martin. That's not my job. You historians and writers can evaluate people."

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