Local News

Unraveling deal for 'Silent Sam' not that easy

Posted February 13, 2020 5:36 p.m. EST
Updated February 17, 2020 7:45 p.m. EST

— Although a judge has voided a $2.5 million deal to give the controversial "Silent Sam" monument to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, returning everything to where it was before the deal was struck is complicated and still leaves the statue's future in limbo.

Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour ruled that the SCV didn't have the legal right to negotiate a deal with the University of North Carolina for Silent Sam, a Confederate monument that stood on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus for more than a century before protesters pulled it down in August 2018.

Under the deal, the SCV took possession of the statue, and UNC-Chapel Hill put $2.5 million into a trust for the group to preserve it, as long as it wasn't located in any of the 14 North Carolina counties where a UNC campus is located.

With no deal in place, the trust disappears, and the SCV must return Silent Sam and the $2.5 million to the university.

T. Greg Doucette, a Durham lawyer who served on the UNC Board of Governors for two years when he was a student, said many questions are unresolved on both fronts.

"The statue is still university property, but the Confederates have it. So, who’s going to go about picking it up? Where are they going to put it when it comes back? Are they going to dispose of it again?" Doucette asked.

In a filing, UNC officials requested the SCV return the statue within 45 days.

UNC officials have said that, without the deal, they likely would have to put Silent Sam back on campus, as required under a 2015 state law. But statue opponents said they believe a public safety exception in the law could keep that from happening.

"I would hope that they would make the right decision, but I’ve seen choices they made in the past that I feel like a lot of students and staff haven’t agreed with," student Jamie Collier said.

Although he said it's unlikely, Doucette said UNC and the SCV could renegotiate the deal as a private contract and not a legal settlement, meaning the group could keep Silent Sam.

Baddour explored that option Wednesday, but Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney for UNC-Chapel Hill students and faculty who sued to block the deal, said it would violate the state constitution.

"Now that the [Sons of] Confederate Veterans don’t have that $2.5 million to build the building and take care of it and everything else, I imagine they'd freely give it back because they don’t want to spend the money on it," Doucette said. "But I really have no idea."

Baddour also gave the SCV a Monday deadline to account for all of the money in the trust. Boyd Sturges, the group's attorney, said Wednesday that he had already been paid $52,000 from the trust for his work on the deal.

"That money has to be sent back to the university," Doucette said. "They’ve got to figure out what they're going to do about that $52,000, whether they’re going to force that to be paid as well."

Haddix said North Carolina taxpayers shouldn't pick up the tab for the SCV's legal fees, and the money paid to Sturges should be returned.

Even if UNC-Chapel Hill gets the full $2.5 million back, Doucette said the university is still out a lot of money.

For one thing, the university has its own legal fees to pay in the dispute, agreeing to pay attorney Ripley Rand $125,000.

UNC leaders also struck a separate deal with the SCV for $74,999, which the group paid to the United Daughters of the Confederacy to buy the ownership rights to Silent Sam, allowing them to file suit against the university over the monument.

"That’s a tremendous breach of fiduciary duty on the part of the Board [of Governors]," Doucette said. "It’s a breach of their duty of loyalty to the public. It’s a crime."

The side deal was in place in case the $2.5 million deal fell apart at the last minute, so it's unclear whether UNC could get that money back. Baddour didn't address it in Wednesday's court hearing.

Also, UNC-Chapel Hill lost a $1.5 million research grant in December because the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation said the Silent Sam deal was inconsistent with its values.

"When you're doing stuff like this with taxpayer money, it really rubs me the wrong way," Doucette said.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.