After rogue investigation of ECU scandal, UNC Board of Governors mull sanctions against one of their own

After rogue investigation of ECU scandal, UNC Board of Governors mull sanctions against one of their own

- in Higher Ed, Top Story
UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randall Ramsey

Members of the UNC Board of Governors publicly condemned member Tom Fetzer’s secret, independent investigation of East Carolina University’s former interim chancellor of ECU Thursday, with some, including the board’s chair, saying consequences for his actions should be discussed.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any member to operate outside of the board, regardless of whether it’s the chair of the board or whomever,” board Chairman Randall Ramsey said in an interview with Policy Watch at Elizabeth City State University, where the board is meeting Thursday and Friday.

“I believe we all have governance policies in place and we should follow those governance policies,” Ramsey added.

Ramsey also said the board “certainly” should consider consequences when members step outside of the board’s rules and procedures. “We’re going to have serious discussions on that matter,” Ramsey said.

Board member David Powers, chairman of the influential UNC panel’s University Governance Committee, said Thursday that his committee would be reviewing the board’s own rules and governance, particularly involving sanctions.

Ramsey said he understands Fetzer, who was not present for the board’s committee meetings on Thursday, may have had his reasons for stepping outside of the board when his hired attorney conducted a rogue probe — amidst an official board investigation — of former ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach, but that doesn’t excuse it.

At the heart of the current conflict: An investigation into the behavior of former ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach.

Gerlach’s been accused of driving while 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.

UNC Board member Tom Fetzer

“I don’t want to condemn anybody for doing what they believe was appropriate,” Ramsey said. “But I don’t care about what board it is  — whether it’s the board of governors or any board in our state or our nation. Board members need to operate as a unit. We need to have a singular voice and a singular mission going forward. In this case that didn’t happen.”

Several board members said Fetzer’s actions created unneeded tension between the board and the UNC System, a relationship still healing from the well-documented personal and political struggles between the board and former UNC System President Margaret Spellings.

Last week, the UNC System released hundreds of pages related to an investigation by Womble Bond Dickinson, the international law firm hired to investigate the incident.

The report also delved 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.

Last week, multiple outlets, including Policy Watch, reported that 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.

Fetzer has not responded to interview requests from Policy Watch. In interviews with other outlets, he has said he didn’t trust the investigators and believed it wasn’t being handled properly.

On the contrary, Ramsey said Thursday that he’s read the entire Womble Bond Dickinson report and had an opportunity to speak with the firm about their work.

“I asked very direct questions,” Ramsey said. “I am positive it was well done and professionally done.”

Fetzer and Romary have suggested investigators didn’t request security camera footage that showed Gerlach’s behavior from the city of Greenville until the last minute, putting it in danger of being automatically erased after 30 days. But the Greenville City Attorney’s office disputes that.

E-mails show the Womble Bond Dickinson investigators were the first to inquire about the footage. The City Attorney’s office said, after that inquiry was made, the footage was not in danger of being deleted as interest in it had been expressed. The firm later e-mailed to be sure the footage wouldn’t be deleted and the investigators, Gerlach’s attorney and Romary all petitioned the court for copies of the footage on the same day.

Fetzer, Romary and ECU Board of Trustees members Phil Lewis and Robert Moore did not fully cooperate with the official investigation, according to the report. They did not allow their phones to be examined as part of the investigation, and, at several points, they called into question the methods and legitimacy of the investigation. The probe was also questioned by former UNC board Chair Harry Smith, who abruptly resigned from the board last month.

Ramsey said all board members and trustees should have cooperated fully.

UNC Board member Steve Long

“I personally think it’s our fiduciary duty,” Ramsey said. “If we take the oath of office and we become a board member on any of our boards of trustees or our governance board here, I absolutely think it’s incumbent on us to do anything we can to help the investigation and absolutely not do anything to harm it.”

Smith said Thursday that the report clears him of any wrong-doing. He maintains he never hired Romary to do anything for him or for the board, and was not involved in the Gerlach incident. Smith said Fetzer’s independent investigation, which he sought to keep from other board members and UNC System Interim President Bill Roper, was the wrong way to handle things.

“I would never operate like that in any way, form or fashion — in terms of having an alternative investigation going on,” Smith said. “It’s my hope the board will get behind Bill.”

Roper declined to comment Thursday. The press conference with the system president and UNC Board of Governors chairman, which traditionally follows board meetings, was cancelled for this week’s meeting.

Multiple board members, who had been reticent to speak on the Fetzer matter in the last few weeks, are now publicly addressing it.

“It’s not appropriate,” said board member Steve Long, a former board liaison to ECU, of Fetzer’s actions in the Gerlach matter.

“It’s not a positive thing,” Long said. “We had an investigation ongoing. If board members had questions, the responsibility is to go to the president, the chairman and if need be the legal counsel to express their viewpoints.”

The problem, Long said, comes when board members don’t understand the limitation of their roles or respect anyone else’s authority.

“I have gone to the president before and gotten a ‘no,’” Long said. “I’m a board member — we have limited authority to do anything individually. You have to work through the board. And so, you’re limited. I have been limited because of that.”

Asked whether Fetzer should face consequences for his actions, Long said, “Our policy and the law say ‘yes.’”

Asked whether he believed there would actually be any consequences, Long said, “I don’t know.”

Other board members said they would rather see the board move on from the entire matter.

“Whenever you have a board, you’re going to have dynamics on the board and different people happy with what’s going on, unhappy with what’s going on, in power, not in power,” said board member Marty Kotis. “I think you’ll have some people out there who, frankly, are just complaining to anyone who will listen about different things that are going on.”

Kotis added he is “frankly sick of hearing about ECU. I think part of that problem is there are a lot of people very closely connected with the school.”

Kotis said he hopes the board will come together and act. “Hopefully, at some time, we’ve got everyone confident in the system and the board’s abilities to come together to solve problems.”

UNC Board of Governors member Phil Byers, a former Rutherford County Sheriff, said he didn’t see problems with the official investigation.

“I’ve done a few investigations in my life,” Byers said. “You can always say you think something more should have been done, but from everything I have seen and everything I have read I think it was a good investigation.”

Now, Byers said, the board should move on.

“We’ve got chancellors to replace, we’ve got a presidential search going on,” Byers said. “There are lots of good things that we need to concentrate on doing.”

The Board of Governors meets in full session Friday morning. Fetzer is expected to attend.