Raleigh, N.C. — The Department of Health and Human Services paid Thomas L. Adams $37,227.25 as "severance" after he served just one month as chief of staff at the department.
His is the latest high-dollar salary to come to light at the agency responsible for overseeing Medicaid, food stamps and other human service programs. Hefty contracts given to politically connected executives and $80,000-plus salaries granted to younger staffers who worked for Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign have made news in recent weeks.
Adams' severance payment stands out even from those payments, particularly because he occupied an exempt position, meaning he could be hired and fired at will with little notice and no need for the state to give cause and no appeal rights.
"It's ridiculous," said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. "It's a shame that DHHS is becoming the political patronage department of state government."
Adams' hiring was announced in a DHHS newsletter, describing him as having "extensive high-level management experience, having served as the chief executive of numerous professional associations across the country, including the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, the Association of Clinical Research Professionals and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons."
Before taking the job, Adams, 62, was a registered lobbyist for the North Carolina Captive Insurance Association. He resigned his post as a lobbyist of Feb. 21, according to records at the Secretary of State's Office. Adams was reinstated as a lobbyist for the association on May 17, and current publicly available profiles list him as the group's president.
Phone calls and emails to Adams' home and office on Friday afternoon were not immediately returned.
Ricky Diaz, communications director for DHHS, did not explain why an employee hired by Secretary Aldona Wos left in such short order.
"The size, scope and responsibilities of the Department of Health and Human Services are immense, and the challenges are among the greatest in state government. Since January, over 1,600 people have left the department and over 1,400 people have been hired to positions," he said in a written statement Friday afternoon.
Asked for further information, Diaz said, "By law, personnel matters are confidential, so I am not able to comment further."
The $37,227.25 settlement was first reported by the liberal-leaning Progressive Pulse website. That settlement was in addition to $14,000 in salary he earned over his short tenure. His job would have been a $155,000-per-year position.
All told, DHHS paid Adams $51,426 after working from March 1 to April 2, according to payment data provided by the department. That means he earned more in a month than any other state employee. As an exempt employee classified as a health and human services senior planner, salary records show Adams already earned more than 99 percent of the more than 16,000 full-time employees in the department.
The settlement agreement was unusual enough that it required Wos to submit a special request to Budget Director Art Pope on July 29. Pope signed off on the agreement in a hand-written note dated July 30, saying "OK to process, Art Pope."
Pope could not immediately reached Friday.
The payment makes good on what was drafted as a "severance agreement" and signed by Adams on April 1. The agreement, provided by DHHS Friday, said Adams had planned to work for Wos and DHHS for six months.
Although it does not deal in specifics, as part of the agreement Adams agrees to release the agency for any number of claims, including "infliction of emotional distress, wrongful or unlawful discharge" or for violating federal statutes that prohibit age discrimination against workers. The agreement also includes a non-disclosure clause.
Cope said he would be asking to meet with McCrory regarding Adams' severance, as well as the high salaries given to other DHHS workers.
"The governor is going to have to get a handle on what's going on there," Cope said. "It needs to be stopped."