RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.