Former UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith (pictured at left) will step down from the board entirely, he announced Monday.
The announcement comes the same day the UNC system released letters from UNC General Counsel Tom Shanahan tying Smith and board member Tom Fetzer to Greenville-based attorney Peter Romary, who the university system says has improperly identified himself as working for the Board of Governors.
Romary has been tied to both last year’s scuttled Western Carolina University Chancellor search and the recent controversy over the resignation of Dan Gerlach, interim chancellor of East Carolina University. Shanahan wrote to Romary twice — Oct. 28 and Nov. 1 — telling him to cease and desist representing himself as doing investigative work on behalf of the university system or its board of governors.
In his Oct. 28 letter, Shanahan asked Romary to cease a desist identifying himself as working for the UNC Board of Governors.
“We understand that you have represented to one or more individuals that you have been engaged by the Board of Governors to perform ‘investigative work’ for the University. As you know, the UNC Board of Governors has not at any point authorized you to perform any work on the University’s behalf, including but not limited to any ‘investigative work.’ You shall immediately cease and desist from any future such unauthorized and inaccurate representations, either orally or in writing, otherwise. You are not an employee or agent of the University and have no authority to perform any work on its behalf. Be aware that no member of the Board of Governors or any of the Boards of Trustees have the authority to engage you or hire you on behalf of the university or any of its boards.”
The letter goes on to say Romary has been in contact with members of the UNC Board of Governors and Board of Trustees of ECU, “including but not limited to Harry Smith, Tom Fetzer, Robbie Moore, Vern Davenport, and Phil Lewis” related to an investigation the university was then conducting.
Shanahan also demanded that Romary return any UNC records — including those related to the Western Carolina search and the recent
Gerlach controversy at ECU. Failing to do so could be a class one misdemeanor, Shanahan wrote. Romary must preserve any such documents as they relate to a university investigation and possible litigation, Shanahan wrote.
Smith denied any professional connection to Romary Monday in an interview with Policy Watch.
“I have never one time paid Peter Romary a dime of money or asked him to do anything for me,” Smith said. “Peter would sometimes do things and give them to us, but I’ve never asked him to do anything. And I believe Peter is on record saying I had nothing to do with this Dan Gerlach situation.”
Letters between Shanahan and Romary contradict that.
“Harry Smith hired me through Poyner & Spruill and I have the letter of engagement containing scope of work,” Romary wrote in a reply to Shanahan on Oct. 28. “I have compiled information for Harry and submitted the same. I cannot and will not provide you with said letter unless Harry Smith tells me to do so and waives privilege.”
“My role in the WCU matter has been known for some time,” Romary wrote. “Harry’s engagement of me has been known of, by many, for some time. My engagement by Tom Fetzer has been known of for some time.”
As Policy Watch reported last year, the Western Carolina search process came apart when UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer – an influential lobbyist from Wilmington, former mayor of Raleigh and past chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party – intervened and, some members said, overstepped his role.
After a final candidate was chosen from finalists by then-UNC President Margaret Spellings, Fetzer contacted Romary, who he described as a friend at the “screening firm” QVerity, which Fetzer said was as “founded and staffed by former CIA personnel.” Fetzer said he was prompted to ask that the company do a check on the candidate, whose name was redacted from the emails, when he heard the candidate had lectured somewhere (location redacted) of which he had never heard.
Fetzer argued that the candidate had misrepresented information when applying — a charge others on the board disputed.
Fellow board members charged that Fetzer improperly interfered with the search process by giving the candidate’s name and information — which were supposed to remain confidential — to an outside group.
The candidate withdrew from consideration, scuttling a search process that had already cost $100,000.
Fetzer later admitted he had a conversation with UNC President Margaret Spellings about being appointed interim chancellor at the Western Carolina himself. Two former trustees at the school asked if they could put his name forward, Fetzer said, but in a telephone conversation with Spellings he was told she had already decided on an interim. Fetzer denies he pursued the chancellor’s position himself, saying he only had his friend look into the chosen candidate because he believed the vetting process wasn’t thorough enough.
Romary’s name surfaced again last month, when Pitt County Superior Court records showed he applied for and received copies of City of Greenville traffic camera footage that showed Gerlach weaving and struggling to put on a flip-flop before driving away in his car after a night of drinking, some of it with ECU students. That footage, which only Romary had to that point obtained through the court, was then anonymously sent to a number of news outlets earlier this month.
In a reply letter to Shanahan, Romary said he was not acting on behalf of the board of governors or its members on the Gerlach matter but the Police Benevolent Association of North Carolina and North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police. After first denying that last week, the groups later said individual members of their groups may have asked Romary to look into the Gerlach matter but it had come as a surprise to them that he represented himself as doing so on their behalf. They characterized it as a miscommunication.
Romary claims he never claimed to be working for the board of governors and denies he has any documents that came from the UNC system. He does say he has told people he is working for members of that board.
“You are correct that I have been retained by members of the UNC Board of Governors and I will confirm that I have told some people that I have been retained by ‘x’ who is a member of the Board of Governors,” Romary wrote to Shanahan. “I have also been asked to perform work for people on the BoG who may plan to present it to the BoG.”
In a second letter on Nov. 1 Shanahan told Romary that Donald K. Phillips, the Assistant City Attorney for Pitt County, said in a Nov. 29 court hearing that he was in possession of an email in which Romary claimed to have sought the video footage on behalf of members of the UNC Board of Governors and the ECU Board of Trustees.
Shanahan again told Romary to cease and desist making such representations and reiterated the demand that he return any documents that came from the UNC system.
The UNC system had no further statement on the Romary matter late Monday.
The system office did confirm Smith’s resignation, saying he had agreed to continue serving until February 2020 or until the North Carolina General Assembly can appoint a new member to the board to replace him.
UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey praised Smith in a statement Friday.
“Harry has tirelessly served this Board, University System, and state for the past seven years for the betterment of our students,” Ramsey said in the statement. “He worked collaboratively to show that differing views and opinions are healthy for any organization—to ensure all voices are heard and great decisions are made.”