Attorney involved in ECU controversy releases “final statement”

Peter Romary, the Greenville-based attorney who has been tied to members of the UNC Board of Governors in at least two chancellor controversies, released a statement Wednesday addressing his role and for whom he was working.

UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer and attorney Peter Romary.

In tense email exchanges over the last two weeks, Romary was accused by UNC General Counsel Tom Shanahan of telling people he was working on behalf of the UNC system and UNC Board of Governors. Shanahan demanded Romary cease and desist those representations, which led Romary to reply that he has worked for board members Tom Fetzer and Harry Smith and has made that known.

Smith, who stepped down from his role as board chairman last month, resigned from the board entirely this week on the same day Romary’s emails became public.

A WBTV report Wednesday revealed further emails and text messages in which Romary claims he has been investigating ECU and its former Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach on behalf or with knowledge of N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne).

Bell disputes that and has sent his own cease and desist letter to Romary, asking that he not represent himself as working on Bell’s behalf.

Romary sent a lengthy “final statement” to Policy Watch Wednesday in which he claims to he have been involved in investigations into various issues of corruption, sexual assault and coverups at East Carolina University more than three years.

Despite email and text message statements to the contrary, he claims not to have represented himself as working on behalf of the UNC system or legislative leaders.

“Over 3 years ago, I was hired, by a private party, to investigate potential instances of misconduct within the UNC system,” Romary said in the statement. “I was not reporting to the media and I was not the author of things sent to the media – I did report several key findings to 3-4 members of the UNC Board of Governors who thankfully had the wisdom to hear and the eyes to see. I have never represented myself as working for the UNC system, nor have I represented myself as working for the legislature, or the leaders thereof. I have never had a private, or confidential UNC system or institution document in my life.”

“My instructions were to try to show things rumored to be happening were NOT happening,” Romary said. “Rumors – about drug induced sexual assault, mistreatment of victims of sexual assault, paying witnesses to lie to investigators, misuse and abuse of funds, people misrepresenting themselves (and potentially committing serious state and federal crimes) to get jobs, potential espionage against campuses and people and also whether people lied and allowed huge petitions and online attacks to occur by hiding the truth.”

Romary claims that texts and emails wherein he invokes the names and titles of UNC Board of Governors members and legislative leaders have been taken out of context.

“People can read into snippets of conversations, some online and some off, what they will – I cannot stop those out to ‘prove a conspiracy or legislative threats,'” Romary said.

Read the entire statement here.

For months persistent rumors have circulated that current legislators and UNC Board of Governors members themselves will seek the increasing number of open chancellorships – and even the presidency of the UNC System. Four campuses currently have interim chancellors: ECU, Fayetteville State, UNC Chapel Hill and the UNC School of the Arts.

Those rumors were given fuel last summer when the search process for the chancellor at Western Carolina University was scrapped after a board of governors member gave confidential candidate information to an outside search firm. Fetzer was that board member.

Fetzer – an influential lobbyist from Wilmington, former mayor of Raleigh and past chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party – stepped outside the normal search process in leaking candidate information to Romary’s firm, which investigated it.  That led the prime candidate for the position to withdraw. Fetzer asserted the candidate hadn’t been completely forthcoming in his application – something refuted by other board members and system leaders. It was later revealed Fetzer had spoken to system leadership about becoming interim chancellor at Western Carolina himself, but was told they had already chosen someone else.

The controversy led to fierce arguments on the board and an overhaul of the search process. Under the new policy, no board of governors member may apply for a position as chancellor of a UNC school without first resigning their position on the board. Members of the board of governors will also no longer serve on search committees, though they can recommend committee members.

Last month, Fetzer denied he is pursuing any of the currently open leadership positions.

“Lord no,” he told Policy Watch, saying he wouldn’t want to take his family through the rough, social-media dominated process of either running for office or pursuing one of the university leadership spots.

House Speaker Tim Moore has repeatedly denied he will seek the UNC System presidency — though in the last few weeks, board of governors members and fellow legislators have begun openly discussing the possibility and saying he would be a good candidate.

Critics charge that a Moore presidency would lead to an even more politically charged and divisive atmosphere.

Education, News

New national report reaffirms that NC education funding is near the bottom

The New Jersey-based Education Law Center released its latest 50-state assessment of public school funding yesterday (“Making the Grade 2019”) and North Carolina fared significantly worse than most states. According to the report, North Carolina ranks 46th in per pupil funding (more than $4,400 below the national average) and next to last in the nation when it comes to its funding effort (defined as K-12 education revenues as a share of state GDP) — ranking above only Arizona.

This is the report’s overall assessment:

Making the Grade 2019 provides compelling evidence that K-12 public school funding continues to be deeply unfair in many states and a major factor contributing to disparities in education resources, opportunities and outcomes for the 50 million public school children across the United States.

This report evaluates states on three crucial measures of fair school funding to show the condition of the state’s school funding system:

  • Funding Level measures per pupil state and local revenues, adjusted to account for regional cost differences. The ELC report finds that funding levels vary widely across states, from $8,569 per pupil in Arizona, to $27,588 per pupil in Vermont.
  • Funding Distribution measures the allocation of funds to school districts relative to the concentration of student poverty. States are classified as “progressive,” “regressive” or “flat” under this measure. The report finds a wide span in funding distribution, with Nevada providing 31% less (regressive) and Alaska providing 72% more (progressive) per pupil funding to high-poverty districts.
  • Funding Effort measures the level of investment in the K-12 public education system as a percentage of the state’s economic productivity (GDP). The report finds that the highest effort state (Vermont) makes nearly three times the effort of the lowest effort states (Arizona and North Carolina).

While the report gives North Carolina a “C” for being in the middle of the pack when it comes to the difference between the funding levels provided to low-poverty and high-poverty districts, the state receives an “F” grade for both its overall per pupil funding and funding effort. Indeed, the state badly trails South Carolina, which actually received an “A” for funding effort.

And, as is detailed here, the most recent effort from state lawmakers will do nothing to address the problem.

Click here to explore the report, which includes tables and charts like the following.




UNC professor urges State Board of Education to prepare for “disruptive changes’

GREENSBORO — America is changing.

UNC professor James Johnson (standing} talks demographics during a State Board of Education meeting held in Greensboro on the N.C. A&T University campus.

It’s quickly becoming a nation where the people are older and browner.

These “disruptive demographic” changes, as James Johnson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, calls them, will challenge the country and bring change in ways once unimaginable.

“They’re going to dramatically transform all of our social, economic and political institutions,” Johnson told the State Board of Education (SBE) during its fall planning and work session held on the campus of N.C. A&T University.

Johnson also cited a re-emerging South, interracial marriage, the withdrawal of men from the workforce and the increasing number of grandparents rearing grandchildren as disruptive forces changing the country

His advice to the SBE? Be prepared because the business of education will continue to be dramatically impacted by ongoing demographic shifts.

“The way we manage these issues are going to be the key to our ability to thrive and prosper,” Johnson said.

Perhaps nowhere is the changing demographics of North Carolina felt more intensely than in the state’s 116 school districts.

Chart provided by James Johnson

The dramatic increase in the state’s Hispanic population — it’s grown 1114% between 1990-2016 – has forced districts to make acute adjustments to serve student populations that look a lot different than they did a few decades ago.

By comparison, the state’s black population grew 48 percent during that span and its white population 29 percent. Meanwhile, the population non-Hispanic immigrants grew 586 percent and the state’s Asian population 440 percent.

Johnson said North Carolina is quickly moving from a largely black and white state.

“If you think you have change in your school system now, you haven’t seen anything,” Johnson said. “Buckle your seat belt, because the change is going to become more dramatic.”

As a result of the demographics changes, public schools must rethink the way they deliver instruction and services, Johnson said.

“The kids who walk in the school door moving forward wont’ fit into the nice and neat crucibles we’re accustomed to putting them in, and they won’t allow you to put them into those crucibles,” Johnson said. “This is further transforming the complexion of our society, and what it means is, whose history do we teach? What are the curriculum implications of a more diverse population?”

Johnson’s presentation comes just months after the SBE adopted a new strategic plan that focuses on equity. The SBE has pledged to use the concept as a guiding principle in its decision-making.

The plan has three broad goals: Elimination of opportunity gaps; improving school and district performance and increasing educator preparedness to meet the needs of every student.

SBE member James Ford, who co-chaired the board’s strategic planning committee, said he was introduced to Johnson’s work about four years ago, and found it “stunning.”

“So much of what we talk about when we talk about equity is rooted in systems and structures that go far beyond education,” Ford said via a telephone conference call. “The demographic data and picture that he [Johnson] painted back then [four years ago] has shaped the political discourse and climate for the last three years.”

Ford said Johnson’s work gives us a look at what the state will look like if it doesn’t appropriately respond to the needs of its growing and diverse student population.

“One of the most pressing concerns and questions we have to answer as a state board is, if we fail to respond to and negotiate and interrogate how we’re serving students from diverse backgrounds, what does prosperity in North Carolina look like,” Ford said. “We have an ethical, moral and frankly and economic imperative to respond to the data and changing demographics.”

Like Ford and others attending the board’s planning session, SBE member J.B. Buxton had seen Johnson’s presentation before.

“It never ceases to help you better understand the state,” Buxton said.

He said board can use the information to help guide decision-making when it comes to students.

“This all feeds into our new strategic plan and trying to better understand the challenges of the state and how to best address them,” Buxton said. “It gives us a sense of where the state is going from a demographic perspective and what the challenges are for the kids coming into the school systems.”


Courts & the Law, immigration, News

NC justices examine state court power in immigration detention cases

An attorney for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office argued Monday that state courts cannot delve into immigration enforcement under any circumstance — even if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains the wrong person or officers who aren’t trained or deputized to enforce federal laws do so anyway.

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in Chavez v. Carmichael, a Mecklenburg County case that involves two inmates challenging their immigration detention status in state court. It’s a complicated case with many moving parts, but the central issue the justices are considering is whether a state court has the jurisdiction to review habeas corpus petitions from federal immigration detainees.

Sejal Zota, the legal director of Just Futures Law, argued Monday that state courts should have the power to review whether or not a threshold for state officers to make a federal immigration arrest was met.

For example, if a county has a 287(g) agreement, a partnership with ICE in which it delegates authority to local agencies to perform federal immigration enforcement in their jurisdictions, only officers who are certified (i.e. trained and deputized in the program) can make those federal arrests. A state court should have the power to inquire whether officers were certified in an arrest.

“When a county enters into a 287(g) agreement, that is not blanket authority for everyone to start doing immigration arrests,” Zota said. “It doesn’t apply to everyone.”

She also argued that a state court should be able to establish that there was state law that allowed a federal immigration arrest (the 287(g) agreement) and that the right person identified in an ICE detainer is the right person in detention.

“This is very simple fact-finding — the trial courts deal with this all the time,” Zota said.

The point of that type of inquiry would be to prevent mistakes and the deportation of people who may be citizens or in the U.S. legally.

Sean Perrin, the attorney representing the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office, argued that the federal government has exclusive authority over immigration matters and that a state court has “no power to do anything” once it’s established an detainee is in federal custody (whether they are held in a state jail or not).

He said that if state courts could inquire about the validity of federal immigration detainers, it would lead to 100 different jurisdictional rules across the state, which defeats the purpose of a uniform federal system.

“Mecklenburg County would have different immigration rules than Cherokee County; Cherokee County would have different immigration rules than Buncombe County and so on,” he said.

Justice Robin Hudson asked Perrin if it has to first be established that the person in the immigration paperwork is the correct person, and he said “no.” Justice Mark Davis asked what would happen if a state judge saw an issue in a case — do they just say “oh, gee, have fun litigating that in federal court?”

“Yes, exactly,” Perrin said.

He added that a state court finding an error in an immigration case would be attacking federal immigration warrants, and reiterated the federal courts exclusive control over the issue. In the event the feds get something wrong, a person might be able to file a civil rights claim against the agency that arrested them, but a state court wouldn’t have authority in a case even if a jurisdiction’s 287(g) agreement was expired.

Zota, in closing, said a state court might not be able to grant relief in an immigration case, but it always has jurisdictional authority to inquire about the basis for someone’s detention.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

DEQ staff to investigators: We knew nothing about the governor’s deal with Dominion over Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would enter North Carolina in Garysburg, in Northampton County. Initial excavation started earlier this year, but stopped after a federal appeals court ruled the US Forest Service lacked authority to grant a right-of-way to cross the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Ten NC Department of Environmental Quality staff, including Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman, told investigators earlier this month that they did not communicate with the governor’s office in advance about a $57.8 million mitigation fund related to the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Nor was there a quid pro quo involving a key water quality permit for the natural gas project and the fund, DEQ staff said.

DEQ posted the written statements and interview transcripts on the agency website ahead of Friday’s hearing held by the Joint Legislative Subcommittee on the ACP. The hearing starts at 10 a.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

A year ago Republican lawmakers hired Eagle Intel to probe  the timing of the mitigation fund, which was brokered by the governor’s office, and DEQ’s approval of the water quality permit, known as a 401.  The two events were announced within hours of each other on Jan. 26, 2018.

However, all of the staff interviewed by Eagle Intel said there were unaware of the mitigation fund until after the news media reported on it. Their statements are consistent with previous responses to lawmakers who questioned them in committee hearings.

The purpose of the fund, which was voluntary, was to help eastern North Carolina with economic development and renewable energy projects. If built, the 600-mile ACP would start at a fracked natural gas operation in West Virginia, route through Virginia and enter North Carolina in Northampton County. From there the pipeline would run 160 miles to the North Carolina-South Carolina border.

The ACP’s majority owners are Duke Energy and Dominion Energy.

While supported by several Chambers of Commerce along the route, the ACP has encountered vehement grassroots opposition. The $8 billion-plus project is on hold because of legal challenges in Virginia. After losing in a federal appeals court, the ACP owners appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear it. A date has not been scheduled.

Investigators asked DEQ staff why the permitting process was so protracted. Over more than five months, Division of Water Resources staff had repeatedly requested additional information from Dominion Energy. Standard department procedure allows 60 days for applicants to provide the information; after DEQ receives that information, if  the application is still incomplete, department officials ask for additional information and the 60-day clock restarts.

In her written statement, Holman said she was unaware of any “direction given to the Division of Water Resources to accelerate or delay their review and decision” on the permit certification.

Linda Culpepper, who had previously worked in the Division of Waste Management before becoming director of DWR, said the permitting process was not unusual and that there was no outside interference into the decision-making.

Environmental advocates and some lawmakers had questioned why DEQ had prepared both a denial letter and an approval letter to send to the division director.

Brian Wrenn was the hearing officer for the public hearings. He said that DWR staff drafts two versions. “We have beat up in the past … if we just bring a permit to be signed people have said that’s pre-decisional so we’ve started bringing both so we can say that we considered both options.”

Apart from the ACP’s geographical expanse, construction and operation of the pipeline would have “cumulative impacts” on water and air quality, forests, and endangered species habitats. The project would also run through low-income communities of color, including American Indian lands, presenting serious environmental justice issues.

Jay Zimmerman, the former DWR director, told investigators that during staff discussions about the 401 certification, there were questions about the ACP’s economic claims: “Does the pipeline really bring in the number of jobs it’s alleged to bring in, you know the amount of money it would bring in to the state.”

However, Zimmerman said the economic uncertainties fell outside the water quality certification process. “It was repeated a number of times to follow the rules,” Zimmerman said. “We need to be thorough, we need to be consistent with what we’ve done in other cases.”