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Foreign trips by Easley's wife cost N.C. $109,000

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

Gov. Mike Easley did not go on either trip, which were not publically 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 Compiègne, 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 sport utility vehicle that cost taxpayers more than $27,000. Taxpayers paid another $8,900 for Easley, her executive assistant and a state trooper – who was 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 some day 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 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.

High-end hotels, ballet

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. They 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.”

According to Lonely Planet's online guide to Russia, you can “spend your day eating in Moscow's finest restaurants and sleeping between their crispest sheets … (for) around US $500 a day.”

While the state's travel policy allows for greater expenses when traveling to costly locations, it says employees are “expected to exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business and expending personal funds.

The policy also states that appointed and elected officials fall under the same rules.

But when Easley traveled to France in 2007, she first flew on a state-owned plane to New York at a cost to taxpayers of $4,565. The flight to Paris was canceled that night and Easley, her assistant and the state trooper stayed at the Jumeirah Essex House, a luxury hotel that overlooks Central Park. The bill for the night was $1,157.22.

Touring the Hermitage

Wheeler said the trip to Estonia originated with an invitation from Kay Phillips, the wife of Dave Phillips, a former N.C. commerce secretary who is U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet republic south of Finland.

Wheeler said the group decided to add St. Petersburg so they could tour The Hermitage, a world-famous museum. Having Mary Easley on the trip probably opened doors for the N.C. delegation, he said.

“My God, if we could get some great things from The Hermitage to be on view at the N.C. Museum of Art, how fabulous would that be for the people of the state?” Wheeler said.

On May 12, the delegation dined by itself at the restaurant Palkin.

The receipt shows the state officials ordered entrees such as leg of pheasant with homemade sausages, and rabbit with black truffles and foie gras.

Evans didn't bill the state for the $647 they spent on two bottles of wine and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot Brut Champagne. Taxpayers paid $624.54 for the food.

N.C. exposure in Estonia

In Estonia, the delegation stayed with the ambassador, and the expenses dropped considerably. The biggest bill from the country was from the trooper, who stayed in a hotel instead of the embassy.

The delegation attended a reception at the ambassador's home. Wheeler was impressed with the work of Estonian artists and decided to try to organize an exhibit for them in North Carolina.

Easley met with reporters and picked up some news coverage.

“She got lots of good exposure for North Carolina in Estonia, without question,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said it's hard to measure the cost of a trip against the quality-of-life improvements it could produce for North Carolina citizens.

“I don't know how we could have done it much differently,” he said.

“To get the first lady and the group ... to have them there for a week and to accomplish what we did and to meet the people that we did and to see the things we did. It's certainly worth it.” News researcher Lamara Williams contributed to this report.

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

Gov. Mike Easley did not go on either trip, which were not publically 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 Compiègne, 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 sport utility vehicle that cost taxpayers more than $27,000. Taxpayers paid another $8,900 for Easley, her executive assistant and a state trooper – who was 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 some day 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 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.

High-end hotels, ballet

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. They 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.”

According to Lonely Planet's online guide to Russia, you can “spend your day eating in Moscow's finest restaurants and sleeping between their crispest sheets … (for) around US $500 a day.”

While the state's travel policy allows for greater expenses when traveling to costly locations, it says employees are “expected to exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business and expending personal funds.

The policy also states that appointed and elected officials fall under the same rules.

But when Easley traveled to France in 2007, she first flew on a state-owned plane to New York at a cost to taxpayers of $4,565. The flight to Paris was canceled that night and Easley, her assistant and the state trooper stayed at the Jumeirah Essex House, a luxury hotel that overlooks Central Park. The bill for the night was $1,157.22.

Touring the Hermitage

Wheeler said the trip to Estonia originated with an invitation from Kay Phillips, the wife of Dave Phillips, a former N.C. commerce secretary who is U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet republic south of Finland.

Wheeler said the group decided to add St. Petersburg so they could tour The Hermitage, a world-famous museum. Having Mary Easley on the trip probably opened doors for the N.C. delegation, he said.

“My God, if we could get some great things from The Hermitage to be on view at the N.C. Museum of Art, how fabulous would that be for the people of the state?” Wheeler said.

On May 12, the delegation dined by itself at the restaurant Palkin.

The receipt shows the state officials ordered entrees such as leg of pheasant with homemade sausages, and rabbit with black truffles and foie gras.

Evans didn't bill the state for the $647 they spent on two bottles of wine and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot Brut Champagne. Taxpayers paid $624.54 for the food.

N.C. exposure in Estonia

In Estonia, the delegation stayed with the ambassador, and the expenses dropped considerably. The biggest bill from the country was from the trooper, who stayed in a hotel instead of the embassy.

The delegation attended a reception at the ambassador's home. Wheeler was impressed with the work of Estonian artists and decided to try to organize an exhibit for them in North Carolina.

Easley met with reporters and picked up some news coverage.

“She got lots of good exposure for North Carolina in Estonia, without question,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said it's hard to measure the cost of a trip against the quality-of-life improvements it could produce for North Carolina citizens.

“I don't know how we could have done it much differently,” he said.

“To get the first lady and the group ... to have them there for a week and to accomplish what we did and to meet the people that we did and to see the things we did. It's certainly worth it.” News researcher Lamara Williams contributed to this report.

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