After a weeks-long storm of investigations, leaks and accusations of unethical behavior on North Carolina’s top higher education board, some members of the UNC Board of Governors told Policy Watch this week that the embattled panel has grown increasingly divided behind closed doors.
Indeed, some say they expect a heated closed-session discussion of personnel and legal matters when the board meets Thursday and Friday at Elizabeth City State University, amid ongoing controversies over the resignation of East Carolina University’s interim chancellor.
“One thing you learn in business is, if there’s repeated conflicts and problems you have to look for what the common element is,” said one board member, who spoke to Policy Watch on the condition of not being identified. “In this case, we’ve had all these different leaders and what is the common thing is a board – or board members anyway – who will not stop undermining everything they do and let (university system staff) lead.”
Adding to the sense of inner turmoil this week, the board canceled its regular post-meeting press conference with the board chairman and system president.
System officials gave no explanation why they scrapped the press conference, which follows the release late last week of hundreds of pages detailing the investigation into former ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach.
The report and its supporting documents question whether Gerlach was driving impaired after a night of bar-hopping and drinking with ECU students in September, an evening that spurred Gerlach’s suspension and eventual resignation in October. It also delves into efforts by members of the ECU Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors to quietly obtain and publicize purported evidence of Gerlach’s intoxication, sometimes at odds with the official UNC investigation.
“You have to wonder, is there anybody that these people think could do a good job in leadership that’s not themselves?” another Board of Governors member said in an interview with Policy Watch this week. “Do they just think everybody we choose is going to be incompetent or corrupt?”
Last week, multiple outlets, including Policy Watch, reported that UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer and a Greenville attorney he hired, Peter Romary, ran their own investigation regarding Gerlach.
According to emails and text messages obtained by Policy Watch, Fetzer and Romary actively tried to hide their investigation from the UNC system and the law firm hired to do the official inquiry. The video and information they secured were leaked to the media, along with allegations against Gerlach for which there appears to be no evidence.
During their independent investigation, Fetzer and Romary suggested they were working with or on behalf of members of the UNC Board of Governors, ECU Board of Trustees and state lawmakers, dropping the names or titles of Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), and House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne).
Four members of the UNC Board of Governors and two UNC System staffers close to the investigation spoke to Policy Watch over the last two weeks, asking not to be identified so they could describe discussions held in closed session and matters they said might become the subject of lawsuits.
Chairman Randall Ramsey and UNC Interim System President Bill Roper declined to comment, while Fetzer has not responded to multiple interview requests from Policy Watch.
Those members and staffers describe a board that has increasingly split into factions in recent months, with board members intervening in and refusing to cooperate with the official Gerlach investigation in a way that called to mind board conflicts with former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. Both women resigned after a series of public dust-ups with board members, including Fetzer.
Both Fetzer and Romary were involved in last year’s scuttled search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina University – after which it was revealed Fetzer sought to be interim chancellor at the school, but had been rebuffed.
That episode, said by board members to be one of the last straws leading to Spellings’ resignation, divided the board over Fetzer, what the role of board members should be, and when members have stepped over the line.
The current controversy, several members said, feels like history repeating.
“There are people on the board now who are tearing down Bill Roper, who we chose as the interim president and who has done a great job,” one board member said this week. “He has served UNC for decades and we are lucky to have him in that position. The fact that I’m now hearing that he’s conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against Board of Governors members is ridiculous.”
While several board members say they would like to see Fetzer follow former board chairman Harry Smith in resigning, they predict he will not. As a powerful GOP lobbyist, former Raleigh mayor, and ex-chairman of the state Republican Party, they said Fetzer is well-connected and enjoys enough support from lawmakers and fellow board members.
“When you think you can operate without consequences, you do,” said one board member. “What’s got to be decided is, do we as a board think members should be able to do that?”
Among the hundreds of pages — some redacted — released by the UNC system:
- A memo from lawyers with the the international law firm Womble Bond Dickinson on their communications with Fetzer, and attempts to secure Greenville city footage that appears to show Gerlach weaving and stumbling before getting into his car and driving away in the early morning hours.
- A 23-page report from Womble Bond Dickinson its findings in the Gerlach investigation.
- A five-page timeline of communications between Romary and the City of Greenville as he attempted to obtain the video footage of Gerlach.
- Nearly 300 pages of emails and communications related to the Romary timeline.
In its findings, Womble Bond Dickinson reported:
- Gerlach claimed not to be intoxicated when he drove home, but also could not correctly remember the evening’s sequence of events and some important details. Some witnesses claimed that he had slurred speech and trouble walking straight. Interviews with Gerlach and witnesses show he had between 7-10 drinks over the course of the evening. He initially took a ride-share car home but returned to his car, he said, because he realized he had left his house keys inside.
- Gerlach did buy alcoholic drinks for students and says he has done so before, but only when it was confirmed that they were of legal drinking age.
- Despite claims in anonymously sent emails, Gerlach does not appear to have engaged in any public sexual activity, and does not appear to have been with “a known” prostitute, as was anonymously alleged in emails leading to the investigation.
- The woman alleged to be a prostitute was, according to witnesses, a drunk and belligerent person unfamiliar to Gerlach who acted in an aggressive way toward him, and from whom he tried to extricate himself. She was eventually ejected from the bar.
- Written and verbal statements by Romary appear very similar to those that appeared in the anonymous emails. During his interview with investigators, Romary is said to have tried to make the case that Gerlach did have a public sexual liaison on the night in question.
- Fetzer, Romary and ECU Board of Trustees members Phil Lewis and Robert Moore acted independent of the official investigation. They did not allow their phones to be examined as part of the investigation. At several points, they, along with former UNC Board of Governors member Harry Smith, who resigned abruptly last month, called into question the methods and legitimacy of the investigation.
- While arguing with investigators, Romary suggested he would contact U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose family he also referenced while trying to secure materials during his independent investigation.
- While Womble Bond Dickinson could not conclude Gerlach was “set up,” they could not “entirely rule out” that possibility.