Politics & Government

Easley defends hefty costs of foreign travel

Gov. Mike Easley said Tuesday that high overseas travel bills are unfortunate but necessary if North Carolina wants to attract business, tourists and blockbuster art exhibits.

Easley's public comments were his first about the cost of trips he and his wife, Mary Easley, have taken. In April, the Easleys participated in a business-recruiting and tourism-promoting trip to Italy that cost more than $170,000. Last year, Mary Easley went to France with two others at a cost of more than $53,000. And in May, she went to Estonia and Russia with five others at a cost of more than $56,000.

Easley said high bills are unavoidable.

“It costs what it costs,” Easley said. “I wish it didn't cost that much, but you know let's be honest about it. A cheeseburger and onion rings is $60 over there. The dollar is very, very weak now. And that is why we were over there, in order to get those euros coming to the United States for tourism.”

Easley was speaking to reporters at a news conference that he called about another issue. Previous requests for him to comment on the travel expenses had not been granted.

Easley said he didn't plan the trips or choose the travel arrangements. The trip to Italy was organized by the N.C. Department of Commerce. The trips to France and Russia and Estonia were run by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. The decision to rent a car and driver is made by his security detail, he said.

“It's not something that either her or I have anything to say about or do with,” Easley said. “I don't order cars. I really don't. … I don't pick out the menus. I don't decide the venues.”

Easley appoints the head of both the commerce and culture agencies and the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which oversees his security.

Mary Easley's trip to Russia and Estonia was to build relationships with museum officials that could one day score a blockbuster exhibit, like the 2006 and 2007 Monet exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art that brought more than $20 million to the state.

If the trip to Russia results in an exhibit from The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it would likely bring similar numbers, Easley said.

Easley said the trip to Italy has led to four or five potential new or expanded businesses in the state. Museum officials acknowledge a major loan from a Russian exhibit has not yet been realized, although plans are in the works to show Estonian artists at a state museum.

Easley said a News & Observer story on Tuesday about his wife's trips to Europe was unfair because it made it seem as if all expenses were incurred by her. The story said that she was a part of a group in each trip.

On Tuesday, Easley was testy with reporters, limiting some to a single question and admonishing one not to interrupt him. Reporters pressed Easley on specific high-dollar bills such as a chauffeured Mercedes. An SUV and driver for Mary Easley's France trip cost more than $27,000. A similar arrangement for two Mercedes vehicles in Italy cost more than $50,000.

Easley said Mercedes vehicles are common in Europe.

“If you go overseas, that's what you see. You don't get off the plane in Rome and tell them you want a Crown Vic,” Easley said, referring to a Ford Crown Victoria, a car commonly used for police cars and taxicabs. “Quite honestly, I prefer to ride in the van because you've got a lot more room.”

The trips were discussed Tuesday by state lawmakers, who are in session to adopt a budget.

Senate Republican leader Phil Berger brought it up in a news conference with reporters.

“If you're in private business and you waste money in that way, you're probably going to be let go. Obviously you can't fire the first lady. At this point, it's a little late in the game to talk about firing the governor,” Berger said. “But certainly that kind of judgment has got to be something that calls into question a whole range of decisions that have been made over the years.”

Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, said some trips, such as a cultural exchange, might take time to develop into a benefit for taxpayers. But the bills were interesting, he said.

“Some of the expenses appeared to be excessive,” McKissick said.

Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, said the trips showed a lack of appreciation for the economic struggles of state residents.

“I know we need this cultural exchange, but on the other hand, why buy everything and spend everything you can spend?” Hunt said.

Easley said the trips were designed to bring jobs and tourists to the state.

“Our hotels are not full. Our restaurants are not full. People are hurting,” Easley said. “Europeans can come to North Carolina and vacation for half the price that they can vacation in Europe and we're going to get our fair share of that.”

Gov. Mike Easley said Tuesday that high overseas travel bills are unfortunate but necessary if North Carolina wants to attract business, tourists and blockbuster art exhibits.

Easley's public comments were his first about the cost of trips he and his wife, Mary Easley, have taken. In April, the Easleys participated in a business-recruiting and tourism-promoting trip to Italy that cost more than $170,000. Last year, Mary Easley went to France with two others at a cost of more than $53,000. And in May, she went to Estonia and Russia with five others at a cost of more than $56,000.

Easley said high bills are unavoidable.

“It costs what it costs,” Easley said. “I wish it didn't cost that much, but you know let's be honest about it. A cheeseburger and onion rings is $60 over there. The dollar is very, very weak now. And that is why we were over there, in order to get those euros coming to the United States for tourism.”

Easley was speaking to reporters at a news conference that he called about another issue. Previous requests for him to comment on the travel expenses had not been granted.

Easley said he didn't plan the trips or choose the travel arrangements. The trip to Italy was organized by the N.C. Department of Commerce. The trips to France and Russia and Estonia were run by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. The decision to rent a car and driver is made by his security detail, he said.

“It's not something that either her or I have anything to say about or do with,” Easley said. “I don't order cars. I really don't. … I don't pick out the menus. I don't decide the venues.”

Easley appoints the head of both the commerce and culture agencies and the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which oversees his security.

Mary Easley's trip to Russia and Estonia was to build relationships with museum officials that could one day score a blockbuster exhibit, like the 2006 and 2007 Monet exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art that brought more than $20 million to the state.

If the trip to Russia results in an exhibit from The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it would likely bring similar numbers, Easley said.

Easley said the trip to Italy has led to four or five potential new or expanded businesses in the state. Museum officials acknowledge a major loan from a Russian exhibit has not yet been realized, although plans are in the works to show Estonian artists at a state museum.

Easley said a News & Observer story on Tuesday about his wife's trips to Europe was unfair because it made it seem as if all expenses were incurred by her. The story said that she was a part of a group in each trip.

On Tuesday, Easley was testy with reporters, limiting some to a single question and admonishing one not to interrupt him. Reporters pressed Easley on specific high-dollar bills such as a chauffeured Mercedes. An SUV and driver for Mary Easley's France trip cost more than $27,000. A similar arrangement for two Mercedes vehicles in Italy cost more than $50,000.

Easley said Mercedes vehicles are common in Europe.

“If you go overseas, that's what you see. You don't get off the plane in Rome and tell them you want a Crown Vic,” Easley said, referring to a Ford Crown Victoria, a car commonly used for police cars and taxicabs. “Quite honestly, I prefer to ride in the van because you've got a lot more room.”

The trips were discussed Tuesday by state lawmakers, who are in session to adopt a budget.

Senate Republican leader Phil Berger brought it up in a news conference with reporters.

“If you're in private business and you waste money in that way, you're probably going to be let go. Obviously you can't fire the first lady. At this point, it's a little late in the game to talk about firing the governor,” Berger said. “But certainly that kind of judgment has got to be something that calls into question a whole range of decisions that have been made over the years.”

Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, said some trips, such as a cultural exchange, might take time to develop into a benefit for taxpayers. But the bills were interesting, he said.

“Some of the expenses appeared to be excessive,” McKissick said.

Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, said the trips showed a lack of appreciation for the economic struggles of state residents.

“I know we need this cultural exchange, but on the other hand, why buy everything and spend everything you can spend?” Hunt said.

Easley said the trips were designed to bring jobs and tourists to the state.

“Our hotels are not full. Our restaurants are not full. People are hurting,” Easley said. “Europeans can come to North Carolina and vacation for half the price that they can vacation in Europe and we're going to get our fair share of that.”

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