Five revelations in the controversy surrounding UNC board member Tom Fetzer

Five revelations in the controversy surrounding UNC board member Tom Fetzer

Text messages and emails point to questionable actions, claims and motives in rogue investigation of former ECU interim chancellor 

If you’ve been following Policy Watch’s ongoing coverage of the recent East Carolina University controversy, you may be having some trouble keeping it all straight.

When videos of former interim chancellor Dan Gerlach drinking with students at bars near campus surfaced in October, they were quickly followed by rumors he had driven home drunk. Gerlach was placed on administrative leave while the UNC system hired the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson to investigate the matter.

But UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer began his own investigation, utilizing Greenville-based attorney Peter Romary – a fact Fetzer kept from other board members and UNC system officials.

In the weeks that have followed, UNC has released hundreds of pages of memos, text and online messages, and emails related to its investigation – and the parallel investigation by Fetzer and Romary. They show the two men distrusted the official investigation, did not cooperate fully with investigators and suggested at times to various parties that their investigation was backed by state legislative leaders, unnamed judges and the UNC Board of Governors.

Those assertions have been denied and given rise to “cease and desist” letters from UNC system General Counsel Tom Shanahan and Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne), the state House Majority Leader.

Gerlach resigned late last month. But the UNC Board of Governors is now wrestling with how the investigation was conducted and the question of whether Fetzer acted unethically – perhaps with the objective of securing the ECU chancellorship for himself.

Earlier this month, several of Fetzer’s fellow board members – including Chair Randy Ramsey – condemned Fetzer’s actions and suggested there should be consequences for him. David Powers, chair of the board’s University Governance Committee, said his committee would be reviewing the board’s own rules and governance, particularly involving sanctions. That committee meets today (Wednesday) in a closed session that has been called to “discuss legal matters.”

As the board struggles with these issues, Policy Watch has compiled five revelations from the Fetzer/Romary investigation that have been identified by board members as especially disconcerting.

1) Romary dangled possible ECU job as he sought Gerlach video

Peter Romary (Image: Twitter)

A central point of both investigations into Gerlach’s behavior was City of Greenville security camera footage that showed him stumbling and weaving as he walked down the street after a night of drinking and then getting into his car to drive away.

The official UNC investigators and Romary and Fetzer all sought the footage. But records show Romary’s first move was not to contact the city attorney’s office or petition the court for access to them. Instead, Romary directly contacted Greenville Police Lt. Mike Montayne.

Direct messages between Romary and Montayne show Romary asking for access to the footage and Montayne telling him he would have to go through the city attorney’s office and the courts to obtain it.

“I will have to direct you to our police attorney Don Phillips for the release of any video,” Montayne wrote to Romary on October 13. “The information you are requesting has been found and saved to prevent purging. I am sorry but legally I cannot just hand over the video.”

That message conflicts with later statements by Romary and Fetzer that they continued to seek the footage because they believed the official investigators – who also requested the footage through proper channels the next day – would allow the footage to be erased after 30 days, as is city policy.

Romary wrote back that he wasn’t asking anything improper and wanted to be sure to follow the proper steps. He then suggested, however, that he could use his connections at ECU and on the board of governors to secure a good job for Montayne’s wife Tonya, an attorney.

He also suggested attorneys involved in the official UNC investigation were angling for high-paying jobs with the UNC system for which he did not feel they were qualified. One message from Romary read:

There are vacancies coming open in Gen Counsel role at ECU and others – I think some of thee folks (between us) are looking to get into the trough – personally, I think they need people who know a little more about criminal law and trials – $200-300K per year should have knowledge of what is legal.”

Romary also suggested the law firm hired by UNC was getting more work than they should from the system.

“[I] have been (quietly) retained in by some BoG folks to look behind law firm that was hired,” Romary wrote to Montayne. “They have had a LOT of work from UNC system that’s meant to be bid out.”

Romary then detailed a possible position for Montayne’s wife.

“As my teaching and ‘Special Counsel’ role expands I may come to Tonya also to see if she has interest in Uni Atty office – they need people who know litigation risks and when what is done break the law.”

“I’m going to reach out to Tonya when this mess is over,” Romary wrote. “I work for Private Intel Contractor but also teach and give advice to UNC-BoG. My advice has been they need someone with litigation experience AND criminal law background in East (based in Greenville – likely ECU) to stop cover ups OR people breaking laws (say accusing officers of felony conspiracy, etc). She was actually #1 in my mind as DA experience combines both – it pays well and hours are better than most and maybe teach at same time.”

Montayne does not appear to have responded to this part of the message,

In a later message, Romary again brought up Montayne’s wife and the possibility of a job while asking for further cooperation from him on the Gerlach investigation.

“Please also let Tonya know that this may lead to some major changes at ECU because of the disgraceful way things were handled,” Romary wrote.

“I have given her name to some BoG friends as an excellent choice to be risk counsel for ECU (between us please) – recommended it would likely take about #150-$175K per year to get her and also retreat to tenure if she wished a step back at /12 of annual salary (as she would go from 12 months – 9 months pa).”

Romary asked Montayne to call Tom Fetzer to talk about the tapes, which Montayne said he did.

2) Romary offered assistant city attorney favors from Raleigh and Washington

In a later message to Donald Phillips, the assistant city attorney through whom he sought the Gerlach tapes, Romary said cooperation in the matter would win favor for Phillips in Raleigh and even Washington D.C., saying people with whom he (Romary) worked would “owe you one.”

“I wanted to let you know (with no impropriety meant as we have resolution worked out now),” Romary wrote. “That you will have many new friends in Raleigh (and in DC as I know Betsy DeVos’ brother well and she has interest in Higher Ed and Admin – she loves folks with honor//integrity and who do the right thing) – her brother and I have worked together (with our company) for a long time.”

Romary would again invoke his connections to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her brother Erik Prince, founder of the controversial military contractor, Blackwater USA (now known as Academi), when arguing with lawyers for the official UNC investigation.

3) Romary and Fetzer contacted lawmakers, invoked legislative leadership

As early as October 16, Romary told Montayne he was in touch with House Speaker Tim Moore (R- Cleveland), who was supposedly taking a personal interest in the case.

“We spoke to Speaker Moore today,” Romary wrote in a message to Montayne.

“Speaker Moore may well have a legislative subpoena issued for all tapes on Gerlach and/or we may join him in seeking court order,” Romary wrote. “The legislature has constitutional oversight of Higher Education and Gerlach has a morals clause.”

Fetzer contacted Rep. Bell by text message on Oct. 22. Romary and Fetzer both invoked legislative leaders in their efforts to obtain the Gerlach video.

“John—Don Phillips is the Asst City Atty for Greenville overseeing the police Dept,” Fetzer texted Bell. “Please call him and tell him you are aware that Peter Romary (Ro’maree w emphasis on the first syllable), an attorney representing me as a BOG member, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Assoc, has requested the preservation and release of video tapes showing Interim Chancellor Gerlach getting in his car and driving away around 2:20 am on 26 September.”

Fetzer, a Republican lobbyist, former Raleigh mayor and past chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, then asked Bell to use his position as a legislator to help Romary obtain the tapes.

“Tell him the General Assembly has an oversight role and that you would like the tapes released,” Fetzer wrote in a text to Bell about getting in touch with the Greenville city attorney. “Please do this today if possible.”

“It goes without saying, but keeping this QUIET is essential,” Fetzer said in the text.

“I’ll try and work out something,” Bell texted Fetzer in reply.

After that, Romary made reference to Bell in texts to the city attorney’s office, suggesting he would be representing lawmakers in his attempts to get the tapes. He said he wished, in part, to debunk conspiracy theories that Gerlach was set up by local police on his night of drinking.

“I was informed that House Majority Leader John Bell will be retaining me in support of [Police Benevolent Association]/[Fraternal Order of Police] and as part of legislature oversight,” Romary wrote in an Oct. 21 text to Phillips, the assistant city attorney overseeing the Greenville Police Department. “Of course legislature folks want them yesterday.”

Romary followed that up with an email on Oct. 22.

“I’m not sure if Rep. Bell (Majority Leader) was able to get up with you today,” Romary said in the email. “He is wanting to see the video when I get it.”

Romary went on to say he believed UNC System President Bill Roper would be making a decision on whether to reinstate Gerlach that week. Romary warned it was “highly likely” that Roper “will be adopting the story of Mr. Gerlach that corrupt GPD officers set him up on orders from a ‘cabal’ of Judges, Lawyers, [Board of Trustees members], [UNC Board of Governors] members along with political adversaries from Mr. Gerlach’s days with [former] Governor [Mike Easley….”

“I have conveyed through to the Speaker; President Pro Tem and Majority leader that there is only one video currently being sought (others could be obtained at other times),” Romary wrote.

The next day, Oct. 23, Romary followed up again with a long text to the assistant city attorney in which he suggested the further involvement by legislators.

“I called legislators who are clients today (list grows as allegations about ‘Cabal’ leave speculation wide open – hence why we are not telling Gerlach counsel and especially not the UNC system hired counsel,” Romary wrote in the text.

Bell has denied Romary was working on his behalf and sent him a “cease and desist” letter on Nov. 5.

“It has come to my attention that you are telling individuals that you have been engaged by me to conduct investigative work in regards to a personnel investigation at East Carolina University, and specifically that you are requesting video surveillance footage on my behalf,” Bell wrote to Romary in the letter. “As you know, I have never contacted you to represent me or request this information on my behalf. Please refrain from making such false representations moving forward.”

4) Fetzer floated extensive plans for ECU leadership

Fetzer’s fellow board members have expressed concern that his involvement in the Gerlach controversy stemmed from a desire on his part to become the next chancellor of ECU.

They point to an email from Fetzer that went to UNC System President Bill Roper, former board chairman Harry Smith and board member Michael Williford.

In the March 26 email, sent in the period between the forced resignation of former ECU chancellor Cecil Staton and the naming of Gerlach as interim chancellor, Fetzer outlined an extensive plan he called “Operation Rescue ECU” that went so far as to discuss the installation of an interim chancellor and plans for the school’s future in the next few years.

Fetzer offered specific strategic points on what the school should do going forward, from fiscal and enrollment plans to a new marketing campaign he wanted to call “ECU Wants You.”

Fetzer went so far as to dictate a draft of the interim chancellor’s first public remarks which included describing Staton’s leadership as “two years of controversy and chaos” which now needs to be replaced with “calm and stability.”

Fetzer also recommended waiting until after spring graduation, when students left campus, to name a new chancellor to avoid “sympathy for Staton” — who was forced to resign without any public reason back in March.

Several board members suggested the letter shows Fetzer always harbored an interest in being chosen as the next permanent chancellor at ECU. Then Gerlach, the interim chancellor who was well-liked among students, faculty and trustees, announced he would be a candidate for the position.

That, several board members and ECU Board of Trustees members told Policy Watch this week, is why Fetzer seized on the controversy surrounding Gerlach’s drinking with students and allegedly driving home intoxicated.

Fetzer became convinced he had to intervene in the official UNC investigation, one ECU trustee said, to be sure damaging information on Gerlach was not only uncovered by the investigation and brought to the board, but was also leaked to the public to quell sympathy and support for the man who might have been his rival in the chancellor search.

As Policy Watch has reported, this is not the first time Fetzer operated outside the system to impact a chancellor search.

Last year, Fetzer and Romary were also involved in the scuttled search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina University. Fetzer gave confidential candidate information to Romary, who suggested the final candidate had lied on their application. Other members of the board said that wasn’t true. The candidate ultimately withdrew their application amid concerns about confidentiality. Fetzer’s fellow board members — and then-UNC President Margaret Spellings — criticized Fetzer for stepping outside of the board’s process and compromising the confidentiality of the selection process.

Fetzer later admitted he had spoken to Spellings about becoming interim chancellor at Western Carolina but was rebuffed when she said she’d chosen someone else.

In September, Fetzer told Policy Watch he was not interested in any open leadership position in the UNC system, from one of the chancellorships to the UNC system presidency.

“Lord no,” Fetzer told Policy Watch at that time.

Fetzer said he has young children and wouldn’t want to put his family through the current social media environment in either a bid for that sort of leadership position or a run for office.

Under rules approved by the board, any Board of Governors member who wants to be considered in a search would need to resign their board position first. The ECU search has just begun properly with the forming of a search committee.

5) The mystery of “John Q. Public”

One of the most unusual parts of the entire controversy is the series of anonymous emails – to UNC system and ECU leaders and the media – from someone calling themselves “John Q. Public.”

The John Q. Public email account sent photos and video of Gerlach drinking with students and the eventual leaked of footage of Gerlach driving away at the end of the night. The account also sent several long statements about Gerlach full of allegations that the official UNC investigation either could not confirm or was able to debunk.

The full report on the full investigation concludes “the specific allegations contained in the Emails are largely false.”

Despite claims in the anonymously-sent emails, Gerlach does not appear to have engaged in any public sexual activity and does not appear to have been with a prostitute, the official report said.

The woman alleged to be a prostitute with whom Gerlach was rumored to have had a sexual liaison 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 in the anonymous emails and were similarly expressed, investigators concluded. 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.

Investigators tried to forensically determine who sent the emails but said they were unable to do so. The account appears to have been shut down, they said.