CHAPEL HILL, NC (WBTV) - The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reversed course late Friday afternoon and produced records requested by WBTV.
A WBTV reporter requested email correspondence between Jeff Welty, a professor at the UNC School of Government, and Union County District Attorney Trey Robison.
The initial request was made to Welty, who indicated he would likely produce the records but said he had to forward the request to the UNC records office.
But the records office refused to produce the records, invoking an exemption to the North Carolina Public Records Act that only applies to law enforcement agencies.
"Under North Carolina General Statute 132-1.4 certain law enforcement records are not public records as defined by NCGS 132-1," the public records office said.
The university's position—claiming an exemption that only applies to law enforcement agencies—received criticism from public records advocates and attorneys across the state.
Jonathan Jones, an attorney and public records expert who works as the executive director of the North Carolina Sunshine Center, criticized the university's position in a quote to WBTV late last week.
"I think it's outrageous," Jones said after reviewing WBTV's initial request and the university's response. "The UNC School of Government is not a law enforcement agency and they're not subject to the exemption in the public records law."
UNC released the requested records to WBTV late Friday afternoon, providing four pages of records responsive to the station's request.
But even in providing the records, the university gave an explanation for its actions inconsistent with the Public Records Act.
"(I)n response to your request for the University to review its application of GS 132-1.4, the University has asked the Union County District Attorney to affirm its advice that potentially responsive records were considered records of an ongoing criminal investigation," the UNC records office wrote in its explanation for why it decided to produce the responsive documents. "Since the investigative agency has declined to label these University records as such, the University is fulfilling its responsibility in accordance with the North Carolina Public Records Act by providing the attached records responsive to your request."
The university's claim that it can only release records not considered to be investigative records when in the possession of a law enforcement agency is the exact opposite of what the state's public records law says.
Specifically, G.S. 132-1.4(f) says the following: "Nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing any public law enforcement agency to prohibit or prevent another public agency having custody of a public record from permitting the inspection, examination, or copying of such public record in compliance with G.S. 132-6. The use of a public record in connection with a criminal investigation or the gathering of criminal intelligence shall not affect its status as a public record."
Under the law, the university did not have to get permission to release the records from the district attorney and, as the Sunshine Center's Jonathan Jones pointed out last week, should never have invoked the investigative exemption in the first place since neither the School of Government nor Jeff Welty meet the definition of a law enforcement agency.
"I don't think Jeff Welty is a sworn law enforcement officer," Jones said. "He's a great guy but he's not investigating a crime."