State Auditor Les Merritt this morning said that state trips in which First Lady Mary Easley and others traveled to France, Russia and Estonia 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 Easley billed the state $227 dollars for a linen jacket.
Merritt found that the trips to France and Russia were of questionable value to taxpayers. The audit was delayed 30 days because Merritt could not get an interview with Easley.
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, where room expenses averaged $955 a night per person, 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. "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."
An Easley spokesman said all expenses and planning arrangments were handled by the Department of Cultural Resources.
"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 Seth Effron a spokesman for Gov. Easley. Effron declined to answer questions.
"The statement that I've given you is the statement I've given out."
A phone call to the acting head of the Cultural Resources Department was not immediately returned.
Merritt reviewed the trips after news reports in The News & Observer detailed expenses. Merritt received hotline tips that the trips were wasteful. Easley has declined requests to discuss the trips. Her husband, Gov. Mike Easley, has defended the trips, saying Europe is expensive and that just one big museum exhibit, will bring millions to the state.
Details of caviar and alcohol purchases after the jump.
Update: Post now includes response from Easley spokesman.
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;
- and the 24-hour availability of private transportation for the First Lady in a Mercedes SUV for $27,012.61.
Easley and his spokesmen have said that such transportation arrangments are necessary for security. It was the reason the governor had two vehicles available when he and his wife were in Italy. But a seargent in charge of the security detail told auditors that chaufferred private vehicles are not necessary for security. In fact, in France, Easley's car often rode behind the tour bus Easley was riding on.
Multiple persons informed us that the contracted private car simply followed the tour bus when the first lady rode the bus. The first lady rode in the private car in the evenings when the group was on its own for dinner or shopping and when travelling from city to city when they were in Compiegne. The Trooper providing security estimated that the first lady rode the tour bus 60 percent of the time while in France...It appears the private vehicle was a convenience rather than a need for the first lady's group while in France."
Also, the report said that the first lady's former executive assistant was reimbursed $227.50 for a meal for four that was later determined to be the purchase of a linen jacket at a women's clothing boutique in France.
"This report shows that Cultural Resources officials made a poor effort to set reasonable standards for overseas travel.It's clear that meals and lodging were chosen because they met the highest quality and not because they met the standard of a 'prudent' public servant traveling on the taxpayers' dollar," Merritt said in a statement.