RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Gov. Pat McCrory says a pair of 24-year-old campaign staffers landed senior-level jobs in his administration because they were the most qualified applicants, beating out older candidates.
But the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where Matthew McKillip and Ricky Diaz got big promotions and raises after only a few weeks of government service, has been unable to provide any evidence their positions were ever advertised to other potential applicants or that other candidates were considered.
In response to a public records request from The Associated Press, the state agency indicated there were no job postings or written skill requirements for the high-paying positions awarded to the young Republicans.
McKillip, the chief policy adviser to DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos, is paid an annual salary of $87,500. Diaz makes $85,000 a year as the communications director for the massive state agency, which has about 10,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $18 billion.
The two positions are exempted from the hiring rules and procedures governing most state jobs, including that they be publicly advertised.
McKillip received a nearly 35 percent raise after only three months on the job, while Diaz got a 37 percent boost. The big raises came despite a March 8 directive the governor sent to state agencies to freeze salary increases, limit purchases and reduce travel to help cover shortfalls in state Medicaid funding.
McCrory insists McKillip and Diaz got their positions on merit, not politics.
"They got promotions," McCrory, a Republican, said in an Aug. 15 interview with WNCN-TV in Raleigh. "They were actually moved over to areas that frankly a lot of older people applied for, too. But frankly, these two young people are very well qualified and they are being paid for jobs at which that's the pay rate for that job."
A review of job descriptions for similar government positions posted online by the Office of State Personnel show McKillip and Diaz don't meet the academic or experience requirements to qualify for even entry-level positions in the areas they now oversee. Their pay also exceeds the listed maximums for the most senior listed positions.
McKillip is classified as a "Health and Human Services Senior Planner." The state job description for an entry-level Human Services Planner I requires a four-year degree in public service administration, psychology, sociology or social work, as well as two years of administrative or consultative experience in human services. A Human Services Planner IV, the highest level carrying a maximum salary of $74,719, requires a master's degree in public or human service, along with a minimum of three years of experience.
Before joining state government, McKillip worked for McCrory's 2012 campaign and transition team. Before that, he spent 11 months as a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, according to his LinkedIn profile page. He has a bachelor's degree in English.
Diaz previously served as a McCrory campaign spokesman and worked for about a year in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office directing social media and digital communications strategy, according to his LinkedIn page. He holds a bachelor's degree in economics and East Asian studies.
According to the state guidelines, an entry level Information and Communications Specialist I should have a four-year degree in journalism or English, or an "equivalent combination of training or experience."
Information and Communications Specialist III, the highest classification, requires a degree in journalism or English along with four years of experience in communications, public relations or publicity work. The maximum listed salary for the position is $71,346.
The governor's office, DHHS and the Office of State Personnel did not respond to questions about the process through which McKillip and Diaz were hired in January and then promoted in early April. Emails sent with written questions this week received no reply.
After an initial version of the story was published Wednesday, McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo said in an email that it is misleading to compare the "exempt" positions held by McKillip and Diaz to the job descriptions and requirements for rank-and-file employees published by the Office of State Personnel.
"Every personnel law and policy was adhered to in the hiring of Diaz and McKillip," Genardo said. "State government has nearly 90,000 employees and the press has singled out two workers, yet no one has quibbled with their performance, work ethic and dedication to their department and the state of North Carolina."
The taxpayer-supported salaries for McKillip and Diaz are about three times the starting salary for North Carolina public school teachers, who received no raises in the $20.6 billion state budget signed by McCrory. The budget also eliminated a program that rewards teachers for earning master's degrees.
Earlier this month, AP reported the names of five other young Republican staffers who got state government jobs with current annual salaries ranging from $52,000 to $78,000.
Since taking office, McCrory has moved to exempt more than 500 state positions from the State Personnel Act beyond the number given that classification under his immediate predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. McCrory recently signed a new GOP-backed law giving him direct authority to hire and fire about 500 additional state government employees, bringing the total number to 1,500.
Speaking to a business group in Asheville on Monday, the governor suggested his administration is getting negative coverage of his economic and tax policies because news reporters don't have the education or experience to understand his policies.
"This is too complex for the journalists," McCrory said. "They don't have economics degrees. They've not been in business."
In January, McCrory hired Blannie Cheng Garrett, now 28, as a deputy secretary of commerce and as his adviser on jobs and the economy at a salary of $110,000 a year.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Garrett has a bachelor's degree in international politics. After earning her law degree in 2010, she worked two years at a Raleigh firm where she focused on corporate taxes and private equity transactions.
She does not list a degree in economics.
Follow Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker at https://twitter.com/mbieseck