Raleigh, N.C. — Saying she was tired of people questioning her integrity and that of her office, State Auditor Beth Wood on Thursday released the preliminary findings of an audit into former first lady Mary Easley's salary at North Carolina State University.
The audit determined that the salary was excessive based on her duties, but Wood cautioned that the preliminary findings "should not be considered the final conclusions of the Office of the State Auditor and should not be relied on for any purpose."
A federal grand jury subpoenaed the audit records in May as part of an investigation into former Gov. Mike Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office.
The audit was started last fall under former Auditor Les Merritt after a complaint was sent to the office's hotline. Wood ended the audit when she took office this year, saying she thought it was flawed. She said she thought it was partisan and lacked credibility, including inaccurate salary comparisons.
"They did not do a comparison of apples to apples," she said during a Thursday news conference. "How much she was paid and was she worth it is really not an investigation."
Wood testified to the grand jury last week to explain her rationale for withholding the audit, but she said Thursday that she was releasing the preliminary findings to quell suspicions that political pressure forced her to squelch the audit. Wood and the Easleys are Democrats, while Merritt is Republican.
"It's hard to say whether it was politically motivated, or did we not have the right people on it. I choose to say we didn't have the right people on it," Wood said.
Mary Easley was hired at N.C. State in 2005 as an executive-in-residence and senior lecturer, and she was supposed to develop the Millennium Seminars speakers program and teach a graduate course in public administration and courses in the Administrative Officers Management Program, which provides leadership training to law enforcement officers.
Last year, she received an 88 percent pay increase, to $170,000 a year. N.C. State officials defended the move, saying she had taken on additional duties, such as directing pre-law services at the university and serving as a liaison to area law firms and law schools at other universities as she developed a dual degree program.
According to the preliminary findings of the audit, investigators determined that she should have been paid $79,000 for the various programs she ran. Her presence, for example, saved the Millennium Speakers program only $4,500 a year.
"The salary paid to Ms. Easley is excessive when compared to the responsibilities assigned and others in similar positions," the audit report stated.
The auditors also suggested that her five-year contract be replaced by a two-year deal, noting a public safety program she was to direct hadn't received any state funding so there was no reason to give her a long-term commitment that included that duty.
N.C. State officials criticized the findings in their response to the audit, which they provided in January.
"The valuations placed on the various responsibilities of Ms. Easley’s appointment in your management letter are inappropriate and fail to recognize both the nature of the work and the appropriate levels of compensation," the university's response states.
Officials added that five-year contracts "are common in the university system, especially when continuity of function is desirable."
Wood said N.C. State raised valid concerns about the preliminary findings, and she decided to halt further investigation because the grand jury began looking into the issue.
Still, she said Thursday that she agreed with the finding that the $170,000-a-year salary was excessive.
"Do I believe she was worth no more than $79,000? I believe the figure is somewhere in the middle," she said.
N.C. State terminated Easley's contract in June, citing state budget cuts to the programs she oversaw. She has appealed the move.
Questions about her hiring and promotion led to the resignations of three high-ranking university officials this spring, including Chancellor James Oblinger.
Wood said she might complete the audit in the future, but she said it might not be worth the time and money.
"It would prove the fact that I held the report for the reason I always said I did: There were too many holes in this report," she said.
Frank Perry, a former investigator in the State Auditor's Office who headed the probe into Easley's salary, released a statement late Thursday in which he said he considered the audit "to be complete and accurate."
“It would seem reasonable that the report's findings are substantiated given that four people, including the former NCSU chancellor and the former first lady, have resigned or been fired as a result of the allegations received and investigated during the course of this inquiry,” Perry said.