Auditor questions Easley's expenses

State Auditor Les Merritt said Thursday that trips to France, Russia and Estonia by Gov. Mike Easley's wife and others included “unreasonable and excessive expenses,” including a taxpayer-funded $332 lunchtime caviar cocktail.

Taxpayers picked up hundreds of dollars in alcohol purchases, against state policy. They paid for ballet tickets, and an executive assistant to the first lady billed the state $227 dollars for a linen jacket.

Merritt found that the trips to France and Russia – which cost a total of $110,000 – were of questionable value to taxpayers.

A spokesman for Gov. Easley issued a terse response. “The first lady was asked by Cultural Resources to attend, and while there she did what she was asked to do by the department,” said the spokesman, Seth Effron.

He declined to answer questions. “The statement that I've given you is the statement I've given out,” Effron said.

The acting head of the Department of Cultural Resources, Staci Meyer, said Easley has been unfairly accused of excess.

“We asked the first lady to go on these trips. She didn't pick the restaurants. She didn't secure the lodging,” Meyer said. “To make her appear as though she was doing something she shouldn't have or she wasn't doing state business, there's no basis for that. … We have really made this embarrassing for her.”

Meyer said she missed the alcohol charges when approving expense reports because the receipts were written in Russian. The jacket was claimed as a meal.

Those charges have already been refunded. Meyer disagreed with Merritt's findings that other charges, such as ballet tickets, were unreasonable.

“The Department of Cultural Resources funds ballets. That's one of the things we do here,” Meyer said. “The auditor saw it as purely entertainment. That's our business here. We are in the business of the arts.”

Meyer said that despite her disagreements with Merritt, the department has used money from the private nonprofit N.C. Museum of Art Foundation to repay some $44,000 worth of costs that Merritt termed “unreasonable.”

Secretary Libba Evans, who was a member of the delegation to France and Estonia, is on unpaid leave while she deals with personal business. Evans was on leave when she went on the trips. Meyer has been running the department.

Mary Easley and an assistant traveled to Paris and Compiegne, France, in May 2007. The trip was designed to celebrate a successful Monet exhibit in Raleigh that had already ended. Easley had no specific duties or obligations on the trip.

One year later, a delegation of state cultural resources officials including Easley traveled to Tallin, Estonia, and St. Petersburg, Russia. In Russia, Easley and the others had one hour of official state business – a meeting with officials from the Hermitage Museum.

“Any direct benefit to the State related to the First lady's presence on the trips to France and Russia is difficult to identify,” Merritt said in a statement. “For example in Russia, a simple one hour meeting with museum officials does not justify the taxpayers paying for a day-long tour of St. Petersburg plus a trip to the ballet.”

Merritt, a Republican, is running for re-election against Democrat Beth Wood. Merritt said the timing of the audit was not political on his part. In fact, he said, the audit was ready 30 days ago, but he delayed it as he tried unsuccessfully to get an interview with Mary Easley.

“This report should have already been out,” Merritt said. “It's not this office's fault that it's coming out now versus three weeks ago.

“A $955 per night hotel is not a political thing. That's just excessive,“ Merritt said.

Easley has declined requests to discuss the trips. Gov. Easley has defended the trips, saying Europe is expensive and that just one big museum exhibit will bring millions to the state.

Merritt's office said the “unreasonable and excessive expenses” included:

An average per room lodging expense of $955.40 in St. Petersburg.

Excessive meal reimbursements that included the lunchtime caviar cocktail.

Hundreds of dollars in alcohol purchases in violation of state policy.

Entertainment expenses including ballet tickets costing $1,169.56.

24-hour availability of private transportation for the first lady in a Mercedes SUV for $27,012.61.