State News

Tab for Easley's Italian trip tops $100,000

Posted June 19, 2008 12:25 a.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2008 8:14 a.m. EDT

— Gov. Mike Easley's industry-hunting trip to Italy cost more than $100,000, with a chauffeured Mercedes accounting for about half of the tab, according to state records.

Easley, First Lady Mary Easley and a dozen others made the nine-day trip in April, which was designed to recruit industry and sell North Carolina as a tourist destination.

Expenses for the trip included $19,500 for the Easleys to fly to Italy and back, hotel rooms that ranged from $336 to $785 a night, $106 for laundry service at one hotel,  $732  for a lunch for eight people and $958 for a nine-person dinner.

Ground transportation was the most expensive item on the trip. A chauffeured Mercedes for the Easleys cost $51,640, and a van for the rest of the delegation cost $23,441.

"A rented limo with a chauffeur. It seems extravagant to me," said state Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, one of a number of Republicans to criticize the taxpayer-funded trip.

"In situations where people are standing at gas pumps looking at $4-a-gallon gas, the thought of the governor spending $170,000 on a vacation probably doesn't sit very well with them," Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger said.

Department of Commerce officials were quick to defend the trip and the cost.

"It is not a vacation," Commerce spokeswoman Kathy Neal said, noting Easley's security warranted flexibility – and a higher cost – with his transportation.

The exchange rate of $1.64 to 1 euro makes European travel expensive, Neal said, but it also makes North Carolina more attractive to European tourists and businesses looking to expand.

"The governor is the primary salesperson for the state of North Carolina," she said. "He is the CEO of the state, and when he is able to travel on these business development missions, it makes a real difference."

Commerce Secretary Jim Fain says the trip was a success, saying the state has six promising leads on new or expanding businesses. News stories in two Italian publications also touted North Carolina as an attractive tourist destination, he said.

There has been no word yet on the expenses for the Easleys' security detail or Fain.

"The governor should either return the money to the taxpayers, or he should show results from his trip," state Republican Party Chairwoman Linda Daves said in a statement. "At a time when North Carolina families are struggling to make ends meet, they should not have to foot the bill for the governor’s exploits abroad.”