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Exploris deal raises questions

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By Todd Cohen

New disclosures about the deal that has let Anne Bryan, president of the Exploris children’s museum in Raleigh, draw pay as a state employee and increase her state pension benefits raise questions about the explanations for the deal provided by Bryan and Gordon Smith, chairman of Exploris’ board.

Bryan and Smith both say the N.C. Department of Commerce hired her in 1994, when she became president of Exploris, to foster strong ties between the museum and the department.

Both say increasing her pension benefits was not a factor in setting up the deal to make her a Commerce Department employee when she became Exploris’ president.

Bryan, a state employee since 1972, worked for the state Department of Public Instruction before the Commerce Department hired her.

By staying on the state payroll – and receiving a paycheck and benefits from the state, which was reimbursed by Exploris – Bryan now has clocked nearly 30 years of state service and avoided losing 45 percent of the full benefits for which she will be eligible Sept. 1.

Dave Phillips, a High Point business leader who was state commerce secretary when the department hired Bryan, says he does not remember hiring her, does not even know Bryan and cannot imagine any benefit to the state in keeping her on its payroll after she became president of the private, nonprofit museum.

“I have absolutely no idea” what the benefit to the state might have been, he says.

Phillips also says the decision to hire Bryan at the Commerce Department would have been made by the office of then-Gov. Jim Hunt.

“I wouldn’t make a decision like this,” Phillips says.

At the time, he says, he and Hunt did attend a presentation by Smith about the site on which Exploris would be located, but he says the Commerce Department “didn’t put any money into it.”

Jim Bennett, a Burlington business executive who was Hunt’s personnel and patronage chief when Bryan was hired, says he, too, does not remember the appointment, which he says sounds “highly unusual.”

“I never had an experience like that where an employee worked outside state government that got paid by state government,” says Bennett, who is president of Atlas Electric Corp.

Ed Turlington, a Raleigh lawyer who was Hunt’s executive assistant at the time, says that while Hunt was “supportive of trying to find some state funding for Exploris,” he would not –- based on his management style – have been involved in the decision to hire Bryan.

“I would be shocked if the governor had anything [to do with the decision] or initiated the arrangement,” says Turlington, with the firm of Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey & Leonard.

He did work with Smith and Bryan to “get Governor Hunt’s support for some state funding for Exploris,” Turlington says.

“I did help facilitate some meetings on that, was encouraging of the governor, if he thought it was good public policy, to find some state public funding,” he says.

Hunt was out of town and did not return a phone call.

Jim Fain, the current commerce secretary and a member of the Exploris board, says he did not even know about the arrangement with Bryan until the Philanthropy Journal asked him about it.

While Bryan is among 306 “flow-through” Commerce Department employees who receive state pay, benefits and retirement packages from the department but whose salaries are reimbursed by the other agencies, she is the only one not performing state work, The Business Journal reported July 12.

It reported that all the department’s other flow-through employees work for other state agencies.

“You can accurately characterize this as a political decision, and that’s what you have in a town like Raleigh,” department spokesman Tad Boggs told The Business Journal.

He said the Hunt administration, state budget office and Phillips all signed off on putting Bryan on the department payroll.

Smith told the Business Journal he had pushed to get Bryan on the Commerce Department payroll.

“I’m the one who wanted it, and I’m the one who made the arrangement,” he said. “Phillips signed the agreement.”

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