The UNC Board of Governors’ University Governance committee recommended no action Wednesday against two East Carolina University trustees who were recorded promising a student financial and political help if she ran for student government president.
The full board of governors will meet Friday to debate the issue further and decide whether sanctions — including potentially removing the trustees — are necessary. The full board isn’t bound by the the committee’s recommendation and several board members indicated Wednesday they were dissatisfied with the hearing, which ended without a number of their questions being asked.
At issue: a recording of ECU Board of Trustee members Phil Lewis and Robert Moore meeting with a student who had previously run or student government president. If she ran again, the pair said on the tape, they could arrange for a professional campaign manager and finance her campaign as long as she kept the source of the money secret. The student recorded the lunch conversation, which Lewis and Moore first pursued, without their knowledge.
The two sought to replace the incumbent ECU student government president, Colin Johnson, who is a voting member of the board of trustees. Lewis and Moore have opposed a number of Johnson’s votes, going back to a contentious meeting wherein he was the swing vote in the election of a new of board chair. Vern Davenport, the current board chair, won the position 7-6 on the sharply divided board.
On the recording, Lewis and Moore can be heard describing how they thereafter voted against things important to Johnson “just to punish him, if nothing else.”
In Wednesday’s hearing UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer aggressively defended Lewis and Moore. asking a series of pointed questions of Davenport about how the recording was made and questioning the motives of the student who made them. Davenport said he was made aware a meeting between Lewis, Moore and the student would be happening but didn’t know what it was about or that it would be recorded.
Fetzer asked that the charges be dropped altogether, saying the student who made the recording was not an ECU student. She was enrolled at ECU from 2017 through 2019 and had signed up for classes this year. The day she made the recording, she withdrew from classes because of what the school said was a “personal tragedy.” That, university staff said, means she was a student when the two trustees tried to recruit her to run for student government president.
Fetzer, Lewis and Moore were all players in last year’s controversy surrounding the resignation of ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach.
When videos of former interim chancellor Dan Gerlach drinking with students at bars near campus surfaced last October, they were quickly followed by rumors he had driven home drunk. Gerlach was placed on administrative leave while the UNC system hired the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson to investigate the matter.
But UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer began his own investigation, utilizing Greenville-based attorney Peter Romary – a fact Fetzer kept from other board members and UNC system officials. When video was sent to media outlets of Gerlach stumbling down the street after a night of drinking, it was found Romary had secured the security camera video.
Fetzer, Romary and ECU Board of Trustees members Phil Lewis and Robert Moore did not fully cooperate with the official investigation of the incident that followed, according to the report made to the board of governors. They did not allow their phones to be examined as part of the investigation, and, at several points, called into question the methods and legitimacy of the investigation.
When that investigation was concluded UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey said Fetzer should have cooperated with the investigation, should not have secretly begun his own investigation and that he should face consequences for his actions. While a number of other board members said they agreed, no formal action against Fetzer has ever been taken by the board.
At Wednesday’s hearing on Lewis and Moore’s current controversy, UNC Board of Governors member Terry Hutchens expressed the confusion of many members of the board.
“Is this the way it’s done down there?” Hutchens asked.
Moore replied that he is new to the board as of July but believed it a common practice “on a divided board” for trustees to recruit and aid hand-picked students to run for student government president. He called it “business as usual” and said he’d heard another trustee, Max Joyner, had recruited a student to run this year as well.
UNC Board of Governors member Louis Bissette, participating in the meeting via phone, said in his 9 years on the board he’s only seen two instances of something like this — both times at ECU.
Committee Chairman David Powers ultimately cut off questions and called for a committee vote on recommendations, saying he believed members of the committee had seen enough evidence to make a decision. The committee unanimously voted to take no action, with sev
eral members saying they believed the controversy should be handled at the board of trustees level.
Moore had filed a counter-complaint against Davenport, the ECU Board of Trustees chairman, saying he should be removed. After the committee suggested no action against Moore and Lewis Wednesday, Moore asked that the counter-complaint be dropped.
Several UNC Board of Governors members who are not members of the committee expressed frustration that specific questions they posed were not answered.
UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis sent a series of questions about the recording to Powers, including questions about whether Lewis and Moore’s comments about making votes on fiscal matters to spite the current student government president were proper for trustees. Kotis said he plans to ask those questions at Friday’s full board meeting on the matter.
Adam Schmidt, President of the UNC Association of Student Governments and an ex-officio member of the UNC Board of Governors, said he was also frustrated with Wednesday’s hearing.
“If we don’t act on an issue like this, we enable individuals to do things like this,” Schmidt said. “We encourage and endorse the behavior. This is something we need to stand against and we need to show we support the integrity of student elections.”
The Association of Student Governments has called for a full investigation of the incident and the removal of Lewis and Moore if they are found to have been trying to influence the election.
On Tuesday officers of the ECU Faculty also released a letter calling on the board of governors to remove Lewis and Moore from the school’s board of trustees.