State News

Former chancellor, ports chairman testify to grand jury

Posted June 17, 2009 4:07 a.m. EDT
Updated June 17, 2009 7:03 p.m. EDT

— Former North Carolina State University Chancellor James Oblinger and the chairman of the state Ports Authority appeared Wednesday before a federal grand jury investigating dealings former Gov. Mike Easley had with friends and contributors while in office.

Oblinger declined to comment as he left the federal courthouse in downtown Raleigh at about 12:30 p.m., about four hours after he entered.

"Dr. Oblinger, from the start through now, has cooperated with this investigation in every way," said his attorney, Press Millen. "He answered all the questions that were put to him this morning by the grand jury. Beyond that, we have no further statement at this time."

Carl Stewart, a former House speaker who now is chairman of the Ports Authority, also testified in the grand jury hearing.

"It went well. I'm pleased to be able to be here and help if I can," Stewart said upon leaving the federal courthouse.

Ports Authority spokeswoman Karen Fox said the grand jury had subpoenaed information about the state's sale of its stake in the Southport marina to Cary developers Tim Smith and Julian "Bubba" Rawl.

Wilmington developer Nick Garrett also was initially part of the marina sale. He had renovated the Easleys' home in Southport shortly before the deal.

An ethics complaint filed against the former governor in 2006 over the marina sale was eventually dismissed.

Oblinger and former N.C. State Provost Larry Nielsen were subpoenaed last month, with federal investigators requesting access to all documents related to the university's employment of Mary Easley, the former governor's wife.

Oblinger resigned last week as the university released e-mails showing that he had played an extensive role in her hiring in 2005. He said he didn't recall his participation in the effort until reading the e-mails, but maintained the hiring involved no impropriety and no coercion.

Nielsen, who hired Mary Easley, and McQueen Campbell, a close friend of Mike Easley who was chairman of N.C. State's Board of Trustees, both resigned last month amid questions over their roles in Mary Easley's hiring. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Mary Easley served as executive-in-residence and senior lecturer at N.C. State, 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.

A series of e-mails N.C. State turned over to the grand jury last week show Campbell discussed the potential of a university job for Mary Easley with the former governor several times in 2005 before the hiring was official.

N.C. State's Board of Trustees voted to terminate Mary Easley's contract last week. A letter to her never mentioned the controversy and maintained the move was linked to state budget cuts.

It's unclear when Nielsen might testify before the grand jury, which also is reviewing the former governor's travel records, a coastal land deal involving Campbell and Mike Easley and vehicles provided to the Easleys.