Refusal to disclose names of those disciplined after UNC-CH fraud probe prompts lawsuit
Posted November 24, 2014
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Ten media organizations, including Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL News, filed suit Monday to obtain the names of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill faculty and staff who were fired or disciplined in the wake of an outside investigation into academic fraud at the school.
Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein released a 131-page report on Oct. 22 that showed academic advisers steered student-athletes for 18 years toward classes that never met and required only a short paper to pass.
Chancellor Carol Folt called the no-show classes "an inexcusable betrayal" and said four employees were fired and another five have been disciplined based on Wainstein's findings. But she and other university officials have refused to disclose their names, arguing that any actions taken aren't final until grievance hearings have been held and all appeals have been exhausted.
By contrast, UNC-Wilmington announced the day after Wainstein released his report that former UNC-Chapel Hill academic adviser Beth Bridger, who joined the UNC-W staff earlier this year, had been fired because of her role in the sham classes.
Under North Carolina's public records law, the date and reason for any demotion, suspension or dismissal of a state employee must be available for public inspection. The lawsuit notes that the law gives department heads the discretion to make employee records available for inspection if doing so is "essential to maintaining the integrity of such department or to maintaining the level or quality of services provided by such department."
Folt herself mentioned integrity and accountability during a news conference after Wainstein released his report.
"Academic freedom does not mean freedom from accountability. Instead, I believe very strongly that we have to hold each other accountable," she said. "We do this because integrity of the university is owned by all of us."
Wainstein's report names at least 16 faculty and staff members as being directly or indirectly involved in the scheme, according to the lawsuit, and UNC-Chapel Hill officials have provided, when asked by media organizations, information about those people that "appears to be historical in nature" and doesn't reflect their status after Oct. 24.
"The failure to provide updated accurate information is a violation of the public records law and, in particular, the State Personnel Act," said Raleigh attorney Mike Tadych, who is representing the media coalition in the lawsuit.
Other state agencies take the position that changes in employment, such as demotion, suspension or termination, are public record once they have been entered into the state payroll system.
For example, when embattled State Bureau of Investigation agent Duane Deaver was placed on investigative leave in 2010 and then fired in January 2011, that information was public almost immediate;y, despite the three years of appeals that followed.
Tadych argued that the public should know about the decisions of its university administrators.
"If it's the property of the people, then they should have it," he said.
UNC officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, which names Folt and Vice Chancellor for Workforce Strategy, Equity and Engagement Felicia Washington as defendants. The suit seeks a court order declaring the actions taken against the nine employees to be public records and compelling the immediate release of the information.
This is the second time in Capitol Broadcasting and other media organizations have sued UNC-Chapel Hill to obtain public records related to athletics scandals. A judge previously ordered the release of some documents and required the university to pay some of the group's legal fees.