RALEIGH - The Easley administration today fired Debbie Crane, the state official who handled News & Observer reporters' requests for information as they worked on a series about mental health.
Crane, 48, who was public affairs director at the state Department of Health and Human Services, said department secretary Dempsey Benton told her yesterday that Gov. Mike Easley "wanted me out. He had lost confidence in me."
Crane was officially fired this morning by another department official, she said, after Benton went to Easley's press conference about mental health issues.
Crane said her dismissal revolved around the Easley administration's attempts to get former DHHS secretary Carmen Hooker Odom to talk to The N&O about her supposed opposition to the 2001 mental health reforms.
There is no evidence that Hooker Odom opposed the bill, although Easley told reporters late last year -- and again today -- that she had vigorously opposed the legislation.
In a 2001 letter addressed "to all North Carolinians," Hooker Odom said she had developed the reform plan "in collaboration with the North Carolina Legislature." She said she was presenting the plan to the state's residents "with pride and enthusiasm."
Crane said Hooker Odom contacted her in early January about talking to The N&O. Crane said she e-mailed her that, "'These stories are going to be terrible. It's up to you. I wouldn't call them back.'"
"She's in a different role now," Crane said. "She's out of it."
Easley refused to take a reporter's question about Crane at today's news conference. He later dodged a reporter seeking more information by leaving in a car other than the one flanked by his security detail.
The N&O series, "Mental Disorder: The Failure of Reform," reported that the state had wasted at least $400 million on a new community support program for the mentally ill. It also revealed that since December 2000, 82 people had died in state mental institutions under circumstances that raised questions about their care.
Crane worked in state government for more than 18 years. She was paid $86,000 a year. She said she doesn't know what she'll do next.
"It does amaze me that y'all have done this series detailing all this waste of money, all the hurt people ... and that the one person who gets fired is me," she said. "It's truly shooting the messenger."