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State money frozen at Rural Center as president Billy Ray Hall resigns under pressure

By J. Andrew Curliss
acurliss@newsobserver.com

The governor’s office froze state money at the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center on Thursday as the agency’s longtime president, Billy Ray Hall, resigned in an effort to save the agency he led for 25 years.

The center’s board chairwoman, Valeria Lee, refused calls to also step down as she pledged to honor a controversial severance payment to Hall of at least $241,000. She said the payment was intended to show appreciation for what Hall has done to help rural communities.

The swift developments followed mounting questions about the nonprofit organization’s handling and oversight of millions in state dollars received from the General Assembly.

A critical audit Wednesday from the office of State Auditor Beth Wood, a Democrat, had triggered calls from Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, for Hall to resign.

In freezing funds at the Rural Center, the governor’s office invoked a state law that allows it to protect taxpayer dollars by stopping grantees, such as the Rural Center, from spending state money. State Budget Director Art Pope suggested in a memo to lawmakers that the center had been “actively” delaying the audit’s release to secure more state funding as part of the final details of the state budget, expected this month.

Hall, who was not available for an interview, wrote to center board members Thursday morning that he hoped his resignation would allow the agency to continue in its mission of helping develop rural swaths of North Carolina.

Hall said the center’s work is valuable and not finished.

“I hope to clear the way for the General Assembly to make the right decisions about funding for the Rural Center and its work on behalf of rural communities,” he said. “It is important that this work continues, and that can best be accomplished under new leadership.”

Within hours, Pope’s office hand-delivered to Hall’s replacement the order that demanded the agency stop spending state money.

Pope wrote that the administration is considering “the further step” of seeking recovery of all state funds now held by the center, an amount that may top $100 million.

Pope, whose family discount store company has benefitted from a recent Rural Center grant in Rocky Mount, wrote to lawmakers that the administration would aim to oversee the money in a “common goal that these funds be used to meet the needs of rural North Carolina, in compliance with the legislative intent and express legal requirements.”

An uncertain future

The order includes a halt to any state money going to grantees or to the center’s employees. It was not immediately clear, according to a Rural Center spokeswoman, if the funding freeze affected Hall’s severance pay.

The spokeswoman, Garnet Bass, declined to comment on the full effects of the order, saying officials were still gathering information. The center receives federal money and private donations and has accumulated earnings on unspent money, but its primary source of funding, by far, is the state.

The nonprofit organization, based in Wake County with about 50 employees, has grown from a rural jobs commission effort in the 1980s into a major grant maker on behalf of lawmakers. It has received about $25 million a year from the General Assembly in each of the past four years.

In a memo to lawmakers explaining the decision to freeze its state funds, Pope cited the critical state audit of the Rural Center that prompted Hall’s resignation – and the center’s response to it.

The audit had found a lack of proper grant monitoring at the center. Wood’s office had taken the unusual step of remarking on the Rural Center’s formal response to the audit. Auditors said the Rural Center had not provided accurate information.

“Governor McCrory is not only concerned with the findings of the (audit), but the Rural Center response, which the State Auditor stated was ‘not true’ and misleading,” Pope wrote to lawmakers.

He wrote that the audit has apparently been underway for months, with a draft submitted to the Rural Center weeks ago, but that it “appears that (the) Rural Center may have been actively concealing the existence of the audit and delaying the delivery of the audit, in hopes that the final state budget, including increased funding for the Rural Economic Development Center, would be enacted before the release of the audit.”

‘The right decision’

Hall, the president of the Rural Center since its creation in 1987, answered McCrory’s request for his resignation by midmorning.

Hall, 65 and widely known in rural areas across the state, said in his letter he was stepping down now because “it is the right decision for the organization and the rural communities we serve.” His resignation is effective Friday; he said he had been planning to retire soon anyway.

Hall, Lee and about 10 other Rural Center executive committee board members had met on a conference call Thursday morning, discussing the pressure and circumstances that had cast the center’s efforts and funding in doubt, according to Lee.

Hall offered his resignation and the board accepted, she said.

Lee later wrote to board members that while a two-part series published in The News & Observer of Raleigh last month and the state audit this week were “critical of some aspects of the work, we know the Rural Center is an organization of integrity and accomplishments.”

Bob Luddy, a Raleigh businessman and Rural Center board member who has emerged as a leading critic of the center, said the resignation was overdue. Luddy had worked to trim funding to the center last year, saying he grew concerned with the center’s overall operation.

He said the N&O series uncovered deep concerns about how tax money had been handled at the center and had made a “profound difference” in how lawmakers viewed it heading into budget negotiations. The audit released on Wednesday, he said, was the last straw.

The Rural Center had promised a thorough review of its grant procedures following the N&O reports.

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