Federal prosecutors Tuesday ordered the chancellor and provost at N.C. State University to appear before a grand jury this week, making it clear that investigators have opened a wide-ranging criminal probe of dealings surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley.
The FBI served subpoenas to Chancellor James Oblinger on Tuesday afternoon as he left the main administration building, Holladay Hall, to appear at an event across campus.
“This university will do everything to cooperate fully,” Oblinger said.
Investigators want to talk with Oblinger and Provost Larry Nielsen about the hiring, promotion and salary of former first lady Mary Easley, according to the court documents.
Grand juries investigate matters and weigh possible criminal charges; their proceedings are secret. Subpoenas become public records when served on state agencies or officials.
Legal experts said that a demand for testimony and documents does not indicate wrongdoing. The former governor, a Democrat who left office in January, said in a statement last week that he is “comfortable” with any review of his years in office. Mary Easley has refused numerous attempts to speak with her.
Mary Easley secured a job at N.C. State – North Carolina’s largest university – in 2005. Last summer she was given expanded duties and an 88 percent raise, bringing her salary to $170,000.
Her hiring took place after former board Chairman McQueen Campbell suggested it to the chancellor, UNC system President Erskine Bowles said, citing a conversation he had last week with Campbell. Oblinger said he is embarrassed he doesn’t remember it, but acknowledges his practice would have been to pass such a suggestion to the provost, who is the university’s chief academic officer.
Campbell, 38, a Raleigh real estate broker, is a longtime Easley friend and supporter whom the former governor twice appointed to the N.C. State Board of Trustees. Campbell, who was chairman of the board the past two academic years, resigned his trustee position late last week. Nielsen also resigned as provost last week, effective Friday. Both deny wrongdoing.
Top university officials on Monday began publicly seeking Mary Easley’s resignation, saying it’s for the good of N.C. State. By late Tuesday, she had not agreed.
Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, was asked Tuesday whether Mary Easley should step aside. She said only that she wants the situation resolved quickly.
Nielsen to testify
Federal agents want Nielsen to provide testimony Thursday, as well as documents about Mary Easley’s job. Nielsen has publicly said and written in e-mail messages that he created the position for Easley and that it was his idea.
“When I created the first position,” Nielsen wrote in an e-mail message on July 23, 2008, “I was convinced that N.C. State could seize an exceptional opportunity by employing Mrs. Easley to create and direct a new universitywide seminar series – an idea that I had been considering for some time.”
A series published May 9 and 10 in The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer showed that Nielsen was the interim provost at the time the Mary Easley position was created. Nielsen met with Campbell days before Mary Easley faxed her resume to Nielsen at N.C. State. A call was made to Campbell’s cell phone from the Easleys’ home in Southport. Nielsen then created the job, waived a job search and hired Mary Easley on May 26, 2005.
At the time, four candidates were in the running to become permanent provost and had already appeared at campus forums. Nielsen was not among them. Oblinger later announced Nielsen would be a candidate, and hired him for the job, citing widespread support.
Several months after he was made provost, Nielsen gave a speech on campus and said he had little autonomy to make decisions on his own as provost. He said he had to constantly navigate a “clingy environment” of vice chancellors, trustees, legislators and others.
But university officials said that Nielsen alone conceived of the big raise last summer for Easley; he expanded her job to include creating a public safety leadership center. The raise, along with about 30 others, was offered in violation of UNC system rules and was the subject last year of a review by the UNC Board of Governors. The board ultimately approved the five-year, $850,000 contract.
“I am convinced that this decision was Larry Nielsen’s – and Larry Nielsen’s alone,” Bowles said at the time.
Federal authorities have conducted interviews or requested documents related to Gov. Easley’s private air travel, his family’s use of cars and a land deal in Carteret County where he got a good deal on a waterfront lot. The state Highway Patrol is expected to deliver records today; Alan Melvin, former head of Easley’s protection detail, has been subpoenaed to testify today.
State elections officials have opened a criminal investigation of the Easley campaign related to the flights and use of a car. A lawyer for Easley says the campaign is working to update disclosure forms.
Benjamin Niolet contributed.