News: CJ Exclusives

Provost Says He Acted Alone in Hiring

Conflict-of-interest questions surround trustees chairman‘s role

The provost of NCSU says that he alone hired first lady Mary Easley in 2005 and that he approved her 88 percent pay raise to $170,000 a year July 1. Meanwhile, conflict-of-interest questions surround the involvement of the NCSU Board of Trustees chairman in the approval of Ms. Easley’s raise.

The provost, Larry Nielsen, said details that led to the hiring of Ms. Easley at North Carolina State University were unclear; he said he didn’t remember whether anyone suggested he talk with her.

After Ms. Easley’s raise became public, NCSU officials scrambled to justify the action and acknowledged they had not been monitoring the approval process for large pay increases.

In addition, Carolina Journal’s investigation of the matter reveals a potential conflict of interest. Because of his longtime friendship with Gov. Mike Easley, trustees chairman D. McQueen Campbell appeared to have had a conflict of interest when he approved Ms. Easley’s job and 88 percent raise.

The governor appointed Campbell to the Board of Trustees in 2001 and reappointed him in 2005. Campbell was elected chairman in 2007.

Campbell played a key role in a 2005 real estate transaction in which the Easleys purchased a Carteret County waterfront lot for $549,880. News reports later showed that the price the Easleys paid for the lot was significantly less than comparable sales in the same development. One year after the purchase county tax officials appraised the lot at $1.2 million.

Transition to NCSU a mystery

Ms. Easley was employed at North Carolina Central University School of Law from August 1995 until August 2005. She was a part-time assistant professor paid $74,428 for teaching two courses when she resigned.

Nielsen said that before he became interim provost in 2005 he had contemplated developing a “high-level” speaker series for NCSU. On June 27, 2005, the NCSU Board of Trustees reported that Nielsen had been named permanent provost.

Nielsen said he met Ms. Easley on May 2, almost two months before his selection as provost. Documents obtained by CJ show that Ms. Easley sent her resumé by fax to Nielsen’s office on that day.

Other documents show that Ms. Easley was interviewed May 17. On May 26 Nielsen approved a new position with the title of lecturer. “The primary duties will be to direct the university speaking program and to teach three courses per year in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Management,” the job description said.

Nielsen said the new position did not require a job study by a human resources professional. The job opening was not advertised. “I saw a unique opportunity for a unique individual,” he said.

Nielsen signed another form May 26 putting Ms. Easley in the new job at a salary of $80,000 a year. Two years later Nielsen increased her salary to $90,000.

When asked who suggested that he consider Ms. Easley for a job, Nielsen said, “I can’t remember. I don’t recall.” When asked whether it was Campbell, Nielsen said, “I don’t remember.”

When asked whether Campbell had a role in the recent decision to raise Ms. Easley’s salary to $170,000 a year, he said Campbell had no role.

Initial NCSU reaction

Carolina Journal Online published the story about Ms. Easley’s pay increase July 2, and other media quickly picked it up. The Board of Trustees conducted a regularly scheduled meeting on July 8.

According to the minutes of the meeting: “Chair Campbell called the meeting to order at 4:05 p.m. He reminded all members of their duty to avoid conflicts of interest and appearances of conflicts of interest under the State Government Ethics Act and inquired as to whether there were any known conflicts of interest or appearances of conflict with respect to any matters coming before the Board at this meeting. Being none he called upon Assistant Secretary P. J. Teal for the roll call.”

After the open session business was concluded, the board went into closed session to consider personnel appointments. Nielsen confirmed that Ms. Easley was discussed in the close session.

Nielsen said on July 9 that he and Chancellor James Oblinger met with UNC System President Erskine Bowles to discuss Ms. Easley’s position and pay.

Shortly after the meeting, NCSU posted on its home Web page a statement from Nielsen regarding Ms. Easley. The final paragraph stated, “The NC State Board of Trustees has unanimously endorsed Mrs. Easley’s new position and compensation level, as has the Chancellor. President Bowles has said, ‘I join the Board of Trustees in expressing my delight that Mrs. Easley will consider continuing her public service through her work at NC State. She will continue to be a tremendous asset for NC State in her expanded position and will bring additional depth to an already strong faculty and leadership team.’ ”

Oblinger has acknowledged that NCSU had not been following the UNC General Administration’s requirement for the NCSU Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors to approve salary increases greater than 15 percent and more than $10,000. “We believed we were using the right approach in the way we were handling fixed-term contracts, “ he said in a statement.

“As an institution that prides itself on doing things in the right way, we are embarrassed by this difference of interpretation and will take immediate steps to ensure that our contract approval processes are consistent with Board guidelines,” Oblinger said.

He said Ms. Easley’s new contract and salary and several other contracts will be reviewed at the next UNC system Board of Governors meeting on Sept. 12. In the meantime, Nielsen said, Ms. Easley continues to be paid at the rate of $90,000 a year.

Since Ms. Easley’s position is considered an academic-year appointment, she isn’t expected to work during the summer. Nielsen said that she came to work sometimes anyway and that a state trooper always accompanied her.

About Campbell

Campbell, a 1993 graduate of NCSU, became a real estate broker in 2000. A Charlotte Observer story in 2006 described him as a longtime friend and campaign contributor of Easley’s. He also introduced the governor to Cannonsgate, the Carteret County waterfront property.

In addition to running his Raleigh-based company, Campbell Property Group, Campbell is the director of acquisitions for a group of waterfront development and financing companies headed by William G. (Gary) Allen, an N.C. native who now lives in Florida. Allen’s companies developed Cannonsgate.

In 2006, when asked about his relationship with the governor, Campbell told the Observer, “Its pretty common people are going to do business with people they know and trust. I don’t know too many people who do business with their enemies.”

According to the Observer, Cannonsgate salespeople used the governor’s purchase to help market the other lots.

Campbell did not return phone calls for this story.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.