RALEIGH, NC (Jon Camp, WTVD) — When Governor Beverly Perdue named former congressman Bob Etheridge to head the Office of Economic Recovery and Investment – the office in charge of doling out federal recovery money – some wondered why the recently defeated lawmaker was given a temporary job and a nearly six-figure salary.
After all, most of the federal money has already been spent.
But Etheridge says there’s still plenty to do.
“When I came here, about 79 percent of the funds had been moved. Now it’s up to 82. I think that number will keep growing,” he said.
That’s 82 percent of the more than $10 billion awarded to North Carolina spent and the remaining 18 percent still there for the taking.
But critics say something doesn’t add up.
“It makes it easier to sell to the public that you need this job if you say that, well, 20 percent of it needs to be done,” offered Mitch Kokai with the John Locke Foundation.
Kokai points out that when Etheridge’s predecessor Dempsy Benton left the job, he was reported to have said 95 percent of the work was done – not 80 percent, as Etheridge claims.
“The implication was we really don’t need anyone in this position anymore,” said Kokai.
Etheridge couldn’t explain the discrepancy when he spoke with ABC11 but was quick to show us a breakdown. He had figures showing just over $10.5 billion awarded to the state and just over $8.5 billion dispersed. And he says he also has the job of making sure the money that’s already been dispersed is spent properly.
“If you don’t spend it wisely, the state has to pay it back. That’s why it’s so important,” he explained.
But is Etheridge – who’s spent the last 14 years in Washington – the best man for this job? We asked Governor Perdue about it right after she named him to the position.
“Bob Etheridge has assured me and the team in the office that he has the skill set to get this done,” she said.
Etheridge told us his qualifications are extensive.
“I’ve been an administrator, superintendent of schools for 8 years. I ran a small business and that’s what this is all about,” he said.
But critics say Etheridge’s appointment smacks of political patronage.
“It’s hard to believe that you would need to get someone who’s just left Congress and come back to North Carolina and say, ‘You know, we really need your expertise to oversee this stimulus money, even though you haven’t been in state government for 14 years,'” said Kokai.
We asked Etheridge if he thought he’d been done a favor.
“No. It was a job that needed to be done. Somebody had to do it. I could have been doing a lot of different things, but the governor asked me to do it and I’m glad to fill in for a few months because that’s what it’s going to take,” he said.
Etheridge wasn’t Perdue’s first choice, though she defends her decision.
“I know I personally offered the job to one person. My team may have done another person. But the person I asked initially didn’t want the job because it was short term,” said Perdue.
Spent or not, in September, most federal stimulus money will stop flowing into the state. When it does dry up, Etheridge’s job will go away. That’s comforting to critics, but only to a point.
“If it is only a 12 month position and it goes away in 12 months, then at least the damage will be minimal. You always have to watch out, though, for government creep,” offered Kokai.
Etheridge says he doesn’t expect to be the one doing it, but he says, likely, the work won’t end when the money’s all gone.
“At that point, there’s monitoring, accountability, transparency, [that’s] still gonna have to be done. The question is going to be how does it get done?” he offered.
When it comes to federal money, stimulus dollars are among the easiest to track.
You can do it at http://www.ncrecovery.gov/maps/default2.aspx
SEE THE VIDEO AT http://abclocal.go.com/wtvd/video?id=7988220
In response, the North Carolina Republican Party released the following statement:
“North Carolina Democrats have had hundreds of years to perfect their practice of patronage at the expense of North Carolina taxpayers and this is another example. Rather than working to reduce the size and scope of government, Governor Perdue is defending her decision of appointing her political ally Bobby Etheridge to a government-funded job that hands out more government-funded jobs. Last November, the people of North Carolina spoke and Etheridge’s failure to get reelected was a direct result of him championing this wasteful government spending. Governor Perdue trusting Etheridge with taxpayer money is the ultimate act of arrogance.” – Mark Braden, North Carolina Republican Party Spokesman