Easley's job: A lesson learned too late at State

The governor's wife gets a good position at a state university and a hefty raise months before her husband leaves office. The people who are supposed to scrutinize such decisions on behalf of the public are left in the cold, in violation of state policy.

That's a poor way to do business and the wrong way to keep a capable and potentially valuable set of skills on the state payroll.

That mistake has tarnished the image of a university that's one of the state's solid assets. The criticism N.C. State University now faces should be a lesson to other public institutions that do not attend to the details precisely – or recognize that personnel decisions with political overtones must be disclosed and vetted if they are not to breed suspicion.

University of North Carolina system President Erskine Bowles and the UNC Board of Governors have stood behind N.C. State's decision to offer N.C. First Lady Mary Easley a permanent job and an 88 percent pay raise.

Yes, you heard correctly: 88 percent.

NCSU raised her salary as an executive in residence from $90,000 to $170,00 in July. At the same time, it also expanded her duties.

That's a lot of money, far more than the average North Carolinian earns. Yet it's in line with what others with similar responsibilities and in similar academic roles make.

The problem is this: Mary Easley is the governor's wife, and N.C. State failed to follow UNC policy when it gave her the promotion and raise. That leaves the university open to charges that political influence landed Ms. Easley a cushy job.

N.C. State says it wrongly interpreted the policy. Mr. Bowles told the Board of Governors he investigated and found no evidence of anything other than a mistake. He has asked that $55,000 of her salary be paid from private funds, not with state money.

Ms. Easley and the university system also have released documents from the first lady's personnel file that more fully describe her role, and how that role came about. That's the right way to confront questions.

Mary Easley is an accomplished lawyer who has valuable contacts thanks to the positions she's held. Her work for N.C. State teaching, directing a high-profile public lecture series and developing a center for public safety leadership has value for the state.

Yet this hire had the potential for trouble written all over it. N.C. State should have seen that and bent over backwards to vet it correctly and disclose it openly.

Their failure has been costly.