RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos got a bipartisan grilling Tuesday from lawmakers worried about personnel decisions and other issues at her embattled state agency.
During a legislative oversight hearing lasting more than 9 hours, both Republicans and Democrats asked pointed questions of Wos, a wealthy Greensboro doctor and GOP fundraiser appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory to lead the $18 billion agency.
Wos stood by her decision to hire two 24-year-old former McCrory campaign aides to senior-level positions making taxpayer-funded salaries in excess of $85,000.
Republican Sen. Tommy Tucker was among those who told Wos he couldn’t defend the high pay to his constituents, noting his daughter-in-law earns only about a third as much as a public school teacher working with low-income students.
“It makes it awfully difficult as a politician and a legislator out here when we have teachers with five years of experience making $30,000 a year, and have not received a raise in five years, yet you go and hire someone who is one year out of college with an English major and you pay them $85,000,” said Tucker, a two-term lawmaker representing Union County, outside Charlotte. “I need you to tell me how I’m supposed to respond to that when the press picks up on that and it’s public record and we’re getting killed over it.”
Wos, whose primary home has a tax valuation of more than $4.3 million, suggested the problem is not that her staff makes too much but that other state workers don’t make enough.
She said her heart goes out to the senator and the teachers.
“My obligation is to find the right person to do the right job,” Wos said. “The salary scale the gentlemen received are not only in line with what their predecessors had, actually it is less than that, their obligation far exceeds their predecessors, the amount of people reporting to them exceed their predecessors, and the work they do is invaluable. I trust them. I trust them not only personally; I trust that the work they produce for the state, and the citizens, is monumental.”
As Wos spoke, her young chief policy adviser Matthew McKillip sat in the chair to her immediate left. McKillip is paid $87,500 a year, after receiving a promotion and a $22,500 raise after only three months on the job.
Also in the room was DHHS Communications Director Ricky Diaz, who got a $23,000 raise in April to boost his state salary to $85,000.
Both are recent college graduates who worked on McCrory’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign, where finance records show they earned far more modest salaries.
Legislators also pressed Wos about other hiring decisions she has made, including a lucrative consulting contract awarded to a man who works for a logistics firm led by her husband. That consultant, Joe Hauck, is paid at an hourly rate of $125, raking in more than $228,000 in eight months.
During the hearing, Wos often deferred questions about Medicaid to another outside consultant, managed care expert Bob Atlas. He is paid $250 an hour, meaning he could potentially bill taxpayers $2,250 for attending Tuesday’s lengthy legislative meeting, not counting expenses.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a Buncombe County Democrat, read from a copy of a March directive that McCrory issued to state agencies instructing them to freeze salary increases to help cover budget shortfalls. Any salary increases for policy positions exempted from state personnel protections, like those occupied by McKillip and Diaz, had to be approved by both the secretary and the governor’s office, according to the policy.
Wos deferred the question to her human resources director, Mark Gogal, who confirmed the Republican governor had signed off on the raises.
McCrory defended the high salaries for McKillip and Diaz in an August television interview, saying the two were the most qualified applicants and that they beat out “a lot of older people” for the jobs, which were never publicly advertised.
Asked twice Tuesday by a reporter whether she had considered any other candidates for the jobs before hiring McKillip and Diaz, Wos refused to answer.
She stressed that the hires followed all relevant state policies and rules, adding that she judge job candidates by their skill sets and talent, not their age.
“I can tell you anyone who has worked with these two young men … absolutely will concur with the fact that they were the best hires for the positions,” Wos said.
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