State News

Easley defends cost of overseas travel

Posted June 30, 2008
Updated July 1, 2008

— Gov. Mike Easley on Tuesday took issue with reports on how much he and his wife spend on official trips overseas – with state taxpayers picking up the tab – saying they are doing what's needed to keep North Carolina's economy strong.

First Lady Mary Easley took a pair of overseas trips in the past two years to visit museums in Europe for a total cost of $109,000. The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Monday that she traveled to France in 2007 and to Russia and Estonia in May on "cultural exchanges."

Gov. Easley was not on either trip, both of which were sponsored by the state Department of Cultural Resources.

Mary Easley declined to comment about the trips.

The report comes two weeks after media reports that the Easleys spent more than $100,000 on an April trip to Italy sponsored by the state Department of Commerce, including $51,640 for a chauffeured Mercedes.

"You don't get off the plane in Rome and tell them you want a Crown (Victoria). The taxis are Mercedes," the governor said at a Tuesday news conference, adding that the delegation needed a driver to negotiate traffic. "I don't order the cars ... I don't pick out the menus. I don't decide the venues."

Tourism is a $16.5 billion industry in North Carolina, he said, and he and his wife try to promote the state as much as possible when abroad.

"Our hotels are not full, our restaurants are not full, and people are hurting," he said. "Europeans can come to North Carolina and vacation for half the price they can in Europe, and we're going to get our fair share of that."

Critics called the spending on the trips lavish, especially with many people statewide struggling with rising prices for gas and food.

"To have a 24-hour chauffered limosine sees to me to be a bit much," Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger said. "If you're in private business and you waste money like that, you're probably going to be let go."

The Italian trip created contacts with four companies that state recruiters are now working on to bring new business to North Carolina, Easley said. He also cited the economic impact of landing a major art exhibit in defending the cost of the trips.

"I wish (the trips) didn't cost so much, but let's be honest about it, a cheeseburger and onion rings is $60 over (in Europe)," he said. "The dollar's very, very weak now, and that is why we were over there – to get those euros coming to the United States through tourism.

"It costs what it costs, and I want Commerce to be as aggressive as they can be," he said.

In May 2007, Mary Easley visited Paris and Compiegne, France, "to see the ambassador and visit major museums for cultural arts" exchanges, according to an expense report filed with the state. An executive assistant traveled with her.

Taxpayers paid more than $27,000 for the chauffeured Mercedes sport utility vehicle that she used and another $8,900 for her, the assistant and a state highway patrol trooper, who provided security, to stay in a hotel and participate in a Monet-themed tour.

Mary Easley's trip occurred more than five months after a Monet exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art had ended.

Department of Cultural Resources Chief Deputy Staci Meyer told the newspaper that such trips are vital to attracting art exhibitions to North Carolina, specifically citing last year's Monet exhibit.

Meyer said the exhibit drew 220,000 visitors, and state officials estimate the show had an economic impact of $20 million.

"You talk about $50,000 or $60,000 and to me, if you look at the economic impact of great art and what it does for a region, it doesn't seem like it's outrageous to me," she said.

A year after the French trip, Mary Easley and a delegation of state arts officials went to St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tallinn, Estonia. Traveling with her were Larry Wheeler, director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Libba Evans, head of the state Department of Cultural Resources.

Wheeler said the trip could lead to a loan of exhibits from those two countries in the future, including The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

"My God, if we could get some great things from The Hermitage to be on view at the N.C. Museum of Art, how fabulous would that be for the people of the state?" he asked.

Also in the delegation was Judy Easley, the governor's former sister-in-law and director of Boards, Commissions and Foundations for the department.

286 Comments

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  • NCPictures Jul 2, 9:44 p.m.

    crwemax: "Not that I have ever done it, but a cheeseburger and onion rings for 60$ would be about right - including a tip - for a room service meal in a nice hotel."

    Well how about the good ole Gov getting his sweat little backside out in public?? Oh that's right, that would mean he would have to mingle with the common folk!

  • Wakeupcitizens Jul 2, 8:46 p.m.

    Loks like it got screwed up. Here it is again:

    STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA:BUDGET MANUAL:OFFICE OF STATE BUDGET AND MANAGEMENT:Effective Date July 1, 2007 Updated July 1, 2008

    Travel Policies and Regulations:

    Out of State: Breakfast $7.50 :Lunch $ 9.75: Dinner $19.00 : Lodging (actual, up to) $75.50 : Total $111.75

  • Wakeupcitizens Jul 2, 8:40 p.m.

    Funny how there has been another article on here how a Wake County employee was fired for "inappropriate" trips...

    For what it is worth, my wife is a state employee and they are expected to live within the out-of-state rates listes below if they travel overseas:

    STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA BUDGET MANUAL

    OFFICE OF STATE BUDGET AND MANAGEMENT

    Effective Date July 1, 2007 Updated July 1, 2008

    Travel Policies and Regulations

    In-State Out of State

    Breakfast $ 7.50 $ 7.50

    Lunch $ 9.75 $ 9.75

    Dinner $16.75 $19.00

    Lodging (actual, up to) $63.75 $75.50

    Total $97.75 $111.75

  • CrewMax Jul 2, 7:24 p.m.

    Not that I have ever done it, but a cheeseburger and onion rings

    for 60$ would be about right - including a tip - for a room service meal in a nice hotel.

  • greentara Jul 2, 7:16 p.m.

    He goes to Italy to promote business and culture. How cultured is it to order a $60 hamburger with onion rings? He is in Italy! I could of told him about an amazing restaurant where $60 would have bought a 3 course dinner and a nice bottle of wine. But I'm sure his tab would have said something else by the time it made it back here. What a fraud!

  • whatusay Jul 2, 5:55 p.m.

    The only thing that is strong in NC is the number of illegal immigrants that Gov Easley keeps inviting in every day. Easley says that evrything in Europe is expensive, like a Hamburger costs $60.00...I would love to taste a $60 hamburger. But, I think he is exagerating...there is no where on the planet that a hamburger costs $60, unless you have a $50 bottle of champaign with it.

  • doodad Jul 2, 2:28 p.m.

    Somebody's in a mell of a hess!

  • oversleeper Jul 2, 2:14 p.m.

    and what's he doing not wearing a burlap sack? why are my tax dollars paying for expensive suits? please.

    I AM curious when we're going to see those businesses set up shop in NC. I'll be looking out for Europeans touring downtown Durham and Raleigh too. lol!

  • clarkthain Jul 2, 11:55 a.m.

    This crowd is beyond belief! Craig Wittig should have taken Queen Mary with him! Wittig was fired by Wake County and may face CRIMINAL charges for his trips at taxpayer expense - should we expect any less from Lady (?) Easley. Wittig took tax-paid vacations (including whale-watching cruise and 4 Disney World trips-including his entourage-and only managed to spend $161,233.

    Like Mrs. Easley he claims his travels were legitimate business trips since his job duties included directing an anti-littering campaign and planning a proposed environmental education center. It seems local Wake County crooks get a better return on their money than their freinds at the Governor's Mansion! As for

    Where's the Beef?? - If the un-elected Queen Mary (or Hillary II) and His Execellency ate $60 dollar cheeseburgers in Europe, let's see the tab! I bet not!

  • RKBA Jul 2, 11:48 a.m.

    ""I wish (the trips) didn't cost so much, but let's be honest about it, a cheeseburger and onion rings is $60 over (in Europe)," "

    Not only is he a poor steward of OUR money, he's a liar.

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