News & Observer | | Mary Easley trips cost state $109,000

Published: Jul 01, 2008 12:30 AM
Modified: Jul 01, 2008 03:47 AM

Mary Easley trips cost state $109,000

Groups visited France, Russia, Estonia on cultural exchanges; no results yet

North Carolina first lady Mary Easley with Estonian artist Juri Arrak at a reception during her trip to Estonia.

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The North Carolina delegation didn't go empty-handed to Estonia.

At the KUMU museum in Tallinn, the group carried a PowerPoint presentation designed to highlight the state's museums and cultural attractions. Larry Wheeler, director of the N.C. Museum of Art, said that's the kind of meeting the trip was about.

But state records about the trip show that the presentation may have had another benefit.

A month before the trip, a State Department official at the U.S. Embassy in Estonia suggested to Wheeler that giving presentations would make it easier for U.S. officials to organize the trip.

"If you are willing to do a presentation related to your work as the Director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, that would help expedite matters," the official wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail message.

Wheeler said he had always planned to do some kind of presentation.

"I wasn't going to go," he said, "unless we were doing something meaningful."

North Carolina's first lady, Mary Easley, visited some of the finest museums in France and St. Petersburg, Russia, during the past 14 months. She and entourages dined at first-class restaurants, slept in top-notch hotels and sat in the fifth row for a Russian ballet. The travels -- a 2007 trip to France and one to Russia and Estonia in May -- cost taxpayers $109,000.

Gov. Mike Easley did not go on either trip, and neither was publicly disclosed at the time. Mary Easley did not respond to requests for an interview, but expense reports and other documents released in response to a public records request indicate the trips were considered cultural exchanges to build links between North Carolina and officials in the countries visited. The trips have so far produced no tangible benefits.

In May 2007, Mary Easley and an executive assistant traveled to Paris and Compiegne, France, "to see the ambassador and to visit major museums for sister city cultural arts" exchanges, according to the expense report filed with the state.

Once there, Easley had a round-the-clock chauffeured Mercedes-Benz that cost taxpayers more than $27,000. Taxpayers paid another $8,900 for Easley, her executive assistant and a state trooper -- along for security -- to stay in a hotel and participate in a Monet-themed tour. The trip was five months after the Monet exhibit closed at the N.C. Museum of Art.

In May 2008, Easley went to St. Petersburg and Tallinn, Estonia, with a delegation of the state's arts officials. The trip was intended to begin a relationship with museum officials in those two countries, which could someday lead to a loan of their exhibits, said Larry Wheeler, director of the N.C. Museum of Art and a delegation member.

Also on the trip was Libba Evans, head of the Department of Cultural Resources, and Judy Easley, who in addition to being the director of boards, commissions and foundations for the Department of Cultural Resources is the the governor's former sister-in-law. She was there to tend to the first lady, Wheeler said.

The governor's office referred questions to the Department of Cultural Resources, which sponsored the trips. The governor appoints the head of the department. An official at the department declined requests to interview Evans and Judy Easley.

Staci Meyer, a chief deputy for the department, said such trips are vital to landing blockbuster attractions such as the Monet exhibit in late 2006 and early 2007, which drew 220,000 visitors to the N.C. Museum of Art. State officials estimate the exhibit 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 just doesn't seem like it's outrageous to me," Meyer said.

Records request

The invoices, receipts, bills and itineraries for the trips were provided after a public records request.

That request was made after similar documents showed that a business-recruiting trip to Italy in April for the Easleys and others cost more than $170,000.

Less than a month after returning from Italy, Mary Easley left for Russia.

The five people traveling at taxpayer expense, including a state trooper for security, flew to Russia in business-class seats that cost a total of $34,388. In St. Petersburg, the group had tickets to the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre at a cost of about $1,100. The travelers stayed in an $800-a-night hotel and dined at a first-class restaurant, Palkin, for more than $100 per person.

"It's a great restaurant," Wheeler said. "You're probably looking at the bill, which I'm sure was outrageous. ... We wanted to try one of the good restaurants and wanted to show Mary a good Russian experience.

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News researcher Lamara Williams contributed to this report.
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