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Auditor: Mary Easley's trips 'unreasonable, excessive'

European trips taken by the first lady included "unreasonable and excessive expenses," according to a report released Thursday by State Auditor Les Merritt.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — European trips taken by First Lady Mary Easley included "unreasonable and excessive expenses," according to a report released Thursday by State Auditor Les Merritt.

Easley took the trips to France and to Estonia and Russia with the state Department of Cultural Resources.

Gov. Mike Easley's office released a statement in response to the audit: "The first lady was asked by Cultural Resources to attend. And as such, she did what she was asked to do by the department."

Staci Meyer, Cultural Resources' chief deputy secretary, disputed Merritt's charges in the department's formal response to the audit.

"While the department disagrees with your conclusions regarding 'unreasonable costs,' after thoughtful consideration of your observations and recommendations, the department will expend private contributions to pay for any costs you have characterized as 'unreasonable,'" Meyer wrote.

The department will reimburse the state more than $45,000 in expenses, she said.

The auditor's report identified some of the "unreasonable" expenses as:
  • An average per-room lodging expense of $955.40 at a five-star hotel in St. Petersburg
  • Excessive meal reimbursements that included a lunchtime caviar cocktail costing $332.12 and hundreds of dollars in alcohol purchases in violation of state policy
  • Entertainment expenses, including ballet tickets costing $1,169.56
  • 24-hour availability of private transportation for the first lady in a Mercedes SUV for $27,012.61

"I have no problem with them (running up some of these expenses), but you just don't bill it to the taxpayer," Merritt said.

The report also noted that the first lady’s former executive assistant was reimbursed $227.50 for a “Meal for 4” that was later determined to be the purchase of a linen jacket at a women’s clothing boutique in France.

Meyer said the jacket purchase was a mistake that shouldn't have been allowed. She also explained the purchase of alcohol by noting that bills were printed in a foreign language, so officials didn't know they had bought liquor.

“This report shows that Cultural Resources officials made a poor effort to set reasonable standards for overseas travel. It’s clear that meals and lodging were chosen because they met the highest quality and not because they met the standard of a ‘prudent’ public servant traveling on the taxpayers’ dollar,” Merritt wrote in the audit.

State guidelines say that employees traveling overseas on official state business are expected “to exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business and expending personal funds.”

Merritt said his auditors found some four-star hotels in St. Petersburg for about a third of what Cultural Resources paid.

"It's certainly not how state workers normally travel," he said. "A lot of the items on this trip, simply, they were not reasonable by a reasonable taxpayer standard."

Merritt's report also questions the benefit of any official state business that was conducted on the trips to France and Russia.

Easley traveled to Paris and Compiegne, France, from May 17 to 24, 2007, in conjunction with a North Carolina Museum of Art tour to celebrate the museum's Monet exhibit, which ended in January 2007.

The report reveals that the first lady’s involvement was not part of the original trip plans and that she had no specific duties or obligations while on the trip.

All costs associated with the first lady’s involvement with the trip were paid by state funds through Cultural Resources.

Cultural Resources sponsored a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, and St. Petersburg, Russia, from May 11 to 17. Costs for the Estonia part of the trip were mostly covered by the U.S. Embassy as part of a cultural exchange.

During the Estonia trip planning, the first lady was added to the delegation. Because of her attendance, the St. Petersburg portion of the trip was added.

In St. Petersburg, the delegation arrived on May 11, toured St. Petersburg on May 12, met with officials from the Hermitage Museum for one hour on May 13 and then attended the Mariinsky Ballet that night. Costs for the St. Petersburg trip were mostly covered by Cultural Resources.

"When it's $1,000 a night for a total and you get four rooms being rented at taxpayer cost for three days in St. Petersburg, Russia, and you hear one hour of business being done in the whole trip, something about that doesn't make sense," Merritt said.

Meyer took issue with Merritt's criticism of Easley and others attending the ballet.

"What the auditor sees as entertainment is business for us since the department is responsible for attracting and funding exhibits, cultural events and the ballet," she said.

Mary Easley has been the ambassador for the arts in North Carolina, Meyer added.

The investigation resulted from complaints received through the State Auditor’s Office hotline and media reports regarding the costs of overseas travel by the governor and first lady.

Democrat Beth Wood, who is running against Merritt in next week's election, called the audit politically motivated. Merritt said the timing of the audit was unrelated to the election.

Mary Easley also was criticized this summer after accepting a new job at North Carolina State University that led to an $80,000 raise. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors let the raise stand, but they chastised the school for not running it through the proper review channels.


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