Faculty from private and public universities delivered a letter Monday to the governor and his budget director, Art Pope, asking the two men to condemn Civitas' request for emails and other records from UNC School of Law professor Gene Nichol.
Pope and his family are major donors to Civitas, and until late 2012, Pope sat on the group's board. Those who delivered the letter, which has been signed by scholars at two dozen institutions, say the request for six weeks of emails and other materials was an attempt to intimidate Nichol, who has been a vocal critic of Gov. Pat McCrory.
"Civitas, of course, means to harass Mr. Nichol. But its more far-reaching aim – and the reason we are here – is that it aims to intimidate any scholar, teacher or other public employee who might criticize the governor," said Duke University professor Nancy MacLean.
In a news release, Civitas responded, saying the letter shows "a shocking disregard for the facts."
In a phone interview, Civitas executive director Francis DeLuca explained this was part of a long-running effort to get materials form the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which was founded in 2005 by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards. Those efforts, DeLuca said, date to the administration of former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
DeLuca said that Pope had no input into making the request.
"He has been off our board since he took the job as budget director," DeLuca said.
In North Carolina, those who request public records are not required to say why they are demanding the material in question.
Ryan Tronovitch, a spokesman for McCrory, said the governor isn't involved in the dispute. That said, McCrory has expressed concern about the time and burden public records requests place on state government.
"A public university professor is a public employee subject to the same public records rules as all state employees. While Professor Nichol might think himself to be special just because he runs the John Edwards poverty center, he does not get special treatment," Tronovitch said.
After this story first posted, Pope himself responded to an inquiry from WRAL by emphasizing he has not been on Civitas’ board since 2012.
"I don't see or read anything Civitas does until it’s released publicly," Pope said, adding that he had taken no action with regard to Nichol on behalf of the McCrory administration.
Pope, emphasizing that he was speaking for only himself, noted that the group of scholars putting forward the accusation is currently called Scholars for North Carolina’s Future, but used to be called Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina. Just as people can draw lines between himself and Civitas, Pope pointed out that the group of professors could be seen as part of the BluePrint NC controversy.
"This is just the same BluePrint North Carolina tactic of holding a press conference and making outrageous claims," Pope said.