Local Politics

Oblinger e-mails on Mary Easley hiring missing

Some messages from the personal e-mail account of former North Carolina State University Chancellor James Oblinger are missing, a university lawyer told federal investigators Wednesday.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Some messages from the personal e-mail account of former North Carolina State University Chancellor James Oblinger are missing, a university lawyer told federal investigators Wednesday.

N.C. State on Wednesday turned over five more batches of documents to a federal grand jury investigating the dealings former Gov. Mike Easley had with friends and contributors while in office. The grand jury last month subpoenaed all university records regarding N.C. State's hiring and promotion of Easley's wife, Mary Easley.

In a letter to federal prosecutors John Bruce and Dennis Duffy, N.C. State attorney Stephen Smith said university officials could find no e-mails before June 11, 2005, in an account Oblinger used for high-priority communications. The account was opened in January 2005 when Oblinger took over as chancellor, and Oblinger was the only person who could access it, Smith said.

Mary Easley officially joined N.C. State in July 2005, but previous e-mails released by the university show extensive negotiations between Oblinger, former Provost Larry Nielsen, former Board of Trustees Chairman McQueen Campbell, other university officials and the Easleys during the months preceding her hire.

N.C. State has brought in forensic technicians who have been able to recover some of the deleted data, Smith said.

"Periods of time remain between January and June 2005 for which thus far we have been unable to recover records from this account," he said.

N.C. State didn't have a formal policy in 2005 for retaining e-mails, Interim Chancellor Jim Woodward said.

"It was routine after e-mails had been stored for a while to delete them," Woodward said, adding that the university is updating its e-mail retention policy. "My sincere view is that it was not intentional. Even with what we have found, we see no new information."

He said he doesn't think Oblinger had the technical savvy to get rid of any e-mails so they couldn't be found.

"As much as I respect his ability in many ways, I doubt, given his education, that he had the technical ability to do it," he said.

Oblinger's attorney, Press Millen, also said the former chancellor didn't purposely delete any e-mails to conceal anything about Mary Easley's hiring or obstruct the federal investigation.

Millen noted that Oblinger referred university officials to the forensic technicians who are working to recover the lost data because he had worked with them previously.

"I think this entire conversation about e-mails is much ado about nothing, as my review of the e-mails shows," Millen said.

Mary Easley was hired as executive-in-residence and senior lecturer at N.C. State, and she developed the Millennium Seminars speakers program and taught 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 raise, to $170,000 a year. N.C. State officials defended the raise at the time, 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.

Oblinger, Nielsen and Campbell, a close friend of Mike Easley and contributor to his campaigns, have resigned in recent weeks over questions about their roles in Mary Easley's hiring. All have denied wrongdoing.

Mary Easley refused to step down amid the controversy, but N.C. State officials terminated her contract two weeks ago, citing state budget cuts.

Woodward said part of his job is to rebuild trust in N.C. State, and he said the university would do everything possible to get at the truth of what happened in the case.

"We will look hard at everything we've done. We will do it, and we will report that," he said, adding that he expects most of the deleted e-mails will be recovered by next week.

SBI joins investigation

Meanwhile, the chief of staff for Attorney General Roy Cooper has confirmed that the State Bureau of Investigation is assisting the FBI in the Easley investigation.

In addition to Mary Easley's job at N.C. State, the federal grand jury is looking into the former governor's travel while in office – some of those records also are missing – vehicles that car dealers provided to the Easley family, the sale of a Southport marina to a group that included a developer who remodeled the Easleys' home in Southport and the family's purchase of a waterfront lot in Carteret County at a below-market price.

Kristi Hyman, Cooper's chief of staff, sent a letter Monday to Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger in which she said Cooper told the SBI to look into the allegations against Easley "earlier this year." It was unclear how long the SBI has been working on the case.

State Republican leaders have for weeks been calling for Cooper to launch a state investigation, but he refused to publicly comment on the case.

"I don't think anyone in North Carolina feels like we should rely on federal authorities to clean up problems in state government," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "I think it would help ensure public confidence if we had an independent special prosecutor not tied to either party."

Berger said he isn't convinced anyone in Wake County could handle a potential criminal case against Mike Easley without prejudice, and he called on Cooper to appoint a special prosecutor.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said that, by law, he must wait for the SBI to finish its investigation and hand its findings over to his office before he can decide if a prosecutor from another county needs to step in and handle the case.

"North Carolina, unlike the federal system, doesn't have any statutory provision for a special prosecutor," Willoughby said. "At this point, I think we ought to let the investigators do the investigation and then see what they bring and, at that point, address any other issues."

Hyman noted in response to Berger's statement that Cooper has lobbied for the ability to convene investigative grand juries to probe political corruption cases, but that the Senate deleted such a provision from a bill last year.

The SBI has worked with the FBI on other public corruption cases in recent years, including cases against former House Speaker Jim Black, former state Rep. Thomas Wright and former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps.


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