UNC BOG member, attorney invoked legislature in effort to get video of ECU chancellor

Updated: Nov. 5, 2019 at 9:40 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WBTV) – A member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and an attorney hired by that member tried to use contacts at the North Carolina General Assembly as part of an effort to obtain video of the then-interim chancellor of ECU, new records obtained by WBTV show.

Interim ECU Chancellor Dan Gerlach was placed on paid leave in late September after pictures and video surfaced that showed him drinking and taking shots at a public bar late into the evening. He resigned in late October after videos surfaced that showed him walking unsteadily to his care after 2:00 a.m. the night he was drinking and drive away.

The video of Gerlach walking to his car and driving away was captured on surveillance cameras maintained by the City of Greenville. That video was first obtained by attorney Peter Romary, who runs a law firm base in Greenville and Hillsborough.

Romary has ties to UNC BOG member Tom Fetzer and Harry Smith. Smith previously chaired the UNC BOG and abruptly resigned from the board on Monday afternoon.

Related: UNC System lawyer with ties to BOG members told to ‘cease and desist’ following Gerlach investigation

Hours before Smith resigned from the UNC BOG, WBTV reported Romary told officials at the City of Greenville that he was working to obtain the video on behalf of unnamed members of the ECU Board of Trustees and UNC BOG.

Smith denied having hired Romary to obtain the video of Gerlach. Fetzer declined to comment for the story and Romary said he was unable to identify his clients by name due to a promise of confidentiality.

But new records obtained by WBTV show Fetzer retained Romary to get the videos.

Fetzer, Romary try to enlist top lawmaker in push for videos

When Romary first contacted a lawyer for the City of Greenville on October 15 regarding obtaining video of Gerlach, he said he was representing “some private parties, including a couple members of the ECU Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors.”

But less than a week later, as Romary continued to push the city’s lawyer to release the tapes quickly, records show he invoked a senior lawmaker and, later, the legislature’s subpoena power in an effort to get the video.

“I was informed that House Majority Leader John Bell will be retaining me in support of PBA // FoP and as part of legislature oversight,” Romary wrote in a text message to the assistant city attorney who represents the Greenville Police Department on October 21.

“Of course legislature folks want them yesterday – I will have confirmation from them on representation today,” the text message from Romary continued.

Read: Texts from Peter Romary

One day later, on October 22, Fetzer, the UNC BOG member, sent Bell a text message asking him to call the assistant city attorney regarding the Gerlach video.

“John—Don Phillips is the Asst City Atty for Greenville overseeing the police Dept. Please call him and tell him you are aware that Peter Romary ( Ro’maree w emphasis on the first syllable ) , an attorney representing me as a BOG member, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Assoc, has requested the preservation and release of video tapes showing Interim Chancellor Gerlach getting in his car and driving away around 2:20 am on 26 September,” Fetzer’s text message to Bell said.

“Tell him that the General Assembly has an oversight role and that you would like the tapes released to Mr. Romary and that time is of the essence,” the text message continued. “Please do this today, if possible.”

Fetzer ended his request by asking Bell not share information about efforts to get the video.

“It goes without saying, but keeping this QUIET is essential,” Fetzer said.

“I’ll try and work out something,” Bell responded.

Fetzer responded by telling Bell that if he didn’t have time to call the city, he could email Romary and join in the request for the tapes.

“He will keep it completely confidential,” Fetzer said of Romary.

Fetzer followed up with Bell regarding his request the next day, after Bell had not taken any action related to the videos.

In a phone call Tuesday, Bell unequivocally denied having any involvement in the Gerlach matter and said he never acted on Fetzer’s request that he get involved and has never had any interaction with Romary.

“I do not know Mr. Romary, nor have I retained him. I had no involvement in this, period,” Bell said.

Romary sent a detailed statement on Tuesday evening in response to questions from WBTV for this story in which he denied having ever claimed to represent Bell.

“Your PRA shows that I did NOT state I represented Rep. Bell -- please read it states I had been told ‘I will be retained by Rep. Bell’ in phone conversations and in emails,” Romary’s statement said. “So, any assertion that I said I represented him or was doing investigative work for him is FALSE.”

In a follow-up phone call, Romary said a police officer called him and told him Bell would be retaining him as part of the effort to obtain the Gerlach video but that he could not remember the name of the officer.

In his emailed statement, Romary also offered an explanation for his assertion that lawmakers wanted to see the video as soon as possible.

“’Legislature folks’ wanting things yesterday is a reference to people contacting // telling me they were contacting legislature,” Romary said, without identifying the specific individuals who had contacted him to relay the desire of lawmakers.

Romary claims ‘growing list’ of legislator clients, legislative subpoena to increase pressure for video

Records produced by the city show Romary’s efforts to get the video continued to invoke the legislature, despite Fetzer’s failed attempt to get Bell to intervene.

Romary sent an email to the assistant city attorney on October 22 again invoking Bell’s name but also referencing other senior legislative leadership.

“I’m not sure if Rep. Bell (Majority Leader) was able to get up with you today – he is wanting to see the video when I get it,” Romary’s email began.

“I have conveyed through to the Speaker; President Pro Tem and Majority leader (sic) that there is only one video currently being sought (others could be obtained at other times), witnesses state that no LEOs were present and that I have offered to draft up the order or the piece describing what would be needed,” Romary wrote, seemingly referring to House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Bell.

A spokesman for Berger’s office told WBTV late Tuesday afternoon that neither Berger nor any of his staff had had any contact with Peter Romary.

In Tuesday night’s phone call, Romary said he was communicating with Bell and other legislative leaders through intermediaries, including lobbyists and law enforcement officers but did not specify who.

Read: Emails from Peter Romary to Greenville Assistant City Attorney

On October 23, Romary sent another long text message to the assistant city attorney pushing to get the video of Gerlach released quickly.

“I called legislators who are clients today (list grows as allegations about ‘Cabal’ leave speculation wide open – hence why we are not telling Gerlach counsel and especially not the UNC system hired counsel (sic),” Romary wrote in text.

“I said it was possible (no promise) we could have wrapped up by Friday – again no promises. I was told that if it was and I could drop them off on Friday lunchtime // PM on way back through Raleigh they would ‘owe you one’ – I wanted to let you know (with no impropriety meant as we have resolution worked out) that you will have many new friends in Raleigh (and in DC as I know Betsy DeVos’ brother well and she has interest in Higher Ed and Admin—she loves folks with honor // integrity and who do the right thing) – her brother and I have worked together (with our company) for a long time),” Romary’s text message continued.

That same day, Romary left a lengthy voicemail for the assistant city attorney pressing for the legal paperwork that would allow the tapes to be released to be completed and submitted quickly.

“The only other thing that was going around was the desire, or potential desire, of the legislature to just go ahead and subpoena the tapes because they have the right to subpoena things in from pretty much anywhere and everywhere,” Romary said.

“But I’ve asked them not to go down that route but that would not be good optics for the City of Greenville to have the majority leader sending the subpoena down to Greenville and then sending their lawyers down,” he continued. “It would be much easier for me to work this out with you and get it done.”

Audio: Listen to the VM Peter Romary left for Assistant City Attorney

Romary offered the following explanation regarding his statements related to the possibility of a legislative subpoena:

“I stated ‘We’ have had conversation with -- my clients informed me that there had been calls -- who as I mentioned were making calls and speaking about subpoenas from the legislature. You will see that I stated that I did not want that to happen,” Romary’s statement said.

In a different part of his written statement, Romary said he used the term ‘legislator’ to refer to his clients and not people who serve in the North Carolina General Assembly.

“I was referring to some of my clients as ‘legislators’ ‘would be legislators’ (SMALL l) and also ‘Wiki Lawyers’ to them and in other places-- because I was being bombarded with "info from the legislature,” his statement said.

WBTV’s review of the correspondence between Romary and staff at the City of Greenville did not find any instances in which Romary referred to his clients as ‘Wiki Lawyers.’

Ultimately, Romary filed the petition to get the videos in court on behalf of the Police Benevolence Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. He did not name any members of the ECU BOT, the UNC BOG nor any members of the legislature in the petition.

A judge ordered the video released to Romary on October 25.

Fetzer acknowledges hiring Romary, Bell sends cease and desist letter

In a phone call late Tuesday afternoon, Fetzer acknowledged hiring Romary, after a WBTV reporter told him of the new records provided by the City of Greenville and the text messages obtained from Bell.

Fetzer’s acknowledgement came one day after he declined to comment when asked whether he had hired Romary.

Romary has refused to identify his clients in this matter.

“I’m proud of my effort to help get these tapes out because otherwise I don’t think the truth would have ever been known and I believe that Dan Gerlach would have been reinstated as ECU chancellor,” Fetzer said on Tuesday.

“I believe that investigators knew or should have known that he drove home in early October.” Fetzer continued. “For some reason, that information was never made available and I do believe that my helping get the truth out as the Board of Governor liaison at ECU, I did a service to the university.”

When questioned about Romary’s repeated representations that he was working on behalf of Bell and talking with other legislative leaders, Fetzer could not explain Romary’s repeated representations.

Late Tuesday afternoon, after fielding questions from WBTV, Bell sent a cease and desist letter to Romary.

“It has come to my attention that you are telling individuals that you have been engaged by me to conduct investigative work in regards to a personnel investigation at East Carolina University, and specifically that you are requesting video surveillance footage on my behalf,” Bell said.

“As you know, I have never contacted you to represent me or request this information on my behalf. Please refrain from making such false representations moving forward,” the letter continued.

Bell’s cease and desist letter comes after Romary received two similar letters last week from an attorney representing the UNC System

UNC BOG attorneys make last-minute request to preserve video

The records provided by the City of Greenville also show attorneys with Womble Bond Dickinson who had been hired by the UNC System to investigate the Gerlach matter had failed to act promptly ensure the video from the night of September 25 and early morning of September 26 was preserved.

Records show an attorney representing the UNC System and a lawyer for Gerlach jointly called the assistant city attorney on October 14 to inquire about how to obtain video but did not submit a request to get the video at that time.

Gerlach’s attorney, records show, did view the video.

But attorneys for the UNC System did not file required paperwork in court to obtain a copy of the video until the afternoon of October 25, after Romary had obtained his signed court order. Romary’s order only sought video from a narrow period of time in the early morning hours of September 26.

And records show no attorney conducting the UNC System investigation had taken steps to ensure the city had preserved all video from the evening of September 25 until a month later. The city’s video system erases video after 30 days.

Read: Emails between City of Greenville and Womble Bond Dickinson

Emails produced by the city on Tuesday show a lawyer at Womble Bond Dickinson sent a request to the assistant city attorney asking that video be preserved after hours on Friday, October 25, the day before the footage would have been deleted.

“Notwithstanding, that your request has been made at literally the last minute when City officers are closed and City staff is not at work, the City will make every reasonable effort to immediately accommodate your request,” the assistant city attorney responded.

Other emails provided by the city show IT staff scrambling that evening to reconfigure serves and adjust the computer system that stores the video to ensure it would not be erased.

A judge ultimately granted a petition from attorneys representing the UNC System to release video of that night.

A spokesman for the UNC System did not respond to an email sent late Tuesday afternoon seeking comment as to why the system’s attorneys did not file a petition for the video or request it be preserved sooner.

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