Politics stall Golden Leaf hiring process

Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. – Eleventh-hour requests from Gov. Mike Easley and state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight have extended by three months the search for a new leader for the Golden Leaf Foundation, laying the funder open to charges of political meddling.

Having already interviewed four finalists for the job of president of the foundation, the board granted the requests of Easley and Basnight to suspend the search until it can consider one of Easley’s advisers for the post.

The vote by the board, two-thirds of which was appointed by either the governor or Senate president pro tem, was unanimous, says Tommy Bunn, chair of the foundation and general manager of the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation.

Easley and Basnight specifically asked the board to consider Dan Gerlach, Easley’s top economic advisor, who did not submit an application during the initial search, says Bunn, and who has not submitted one since the board voted to extend the search.

Golden Leaf was created in 1999 to distribute funds, which the state won in a legal settlement with tobacco companies, to economically distressed counties in the state.

That could total $2 billion when all settlement funds are paid.

“It is an organization appointed by political people and you expect from time to time for the board to receive political opinions,” Bunn says of Golden Leaf. “When you’re appointed every four years by elected officials, you expect some politics to seep into the situation occasionally.”

Valeria Lee, the foundation’s first president, has agreed to stay on an additional three months, says Beth Briggs, president of Creative Philanthropy, which was retained by the board to conduct the initial search.

The vote by the board came at a time when two separate bills have been introduced in the General Assembly that “threaten” the foundation, the Charlotte Observer reported on June 7.

Those proposals are unrelated to the recent vote by the board, says Bunn.

“The bills were not discussed,” he says. “To me, it’s two separate issues. The bills are the will of the legislature. The extension was the request of the appointing authorities.”

The board will accept additional applications for the opening, which Briggs says drew hundreds of applications when initially advertised.

Briggs, who was asked by the board to continue coordinating the search but declined, praised the board’s efforts in identifying a qualified slate of candidates over the past several months.

“This board had the highest level of integrity throughout this process,” she says. “They were careful about this and intentional about what they thought was best.”

While the time-frame for the search has changed, the goal has not, says Bunn.

“The intent is to get the best person possible to lead the organization,” he says. “This is a very important search. If there’s talent we haven’t reviewed, it’s probably in the best interest of the organization to get the best person we can find.”

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