Politicians took in more than $1 million from UNC Board of Governor hopefuls

By: - March 18, 2015 9:39 am

John Fennebresque is the current chair of the UNC Board of Governors.

The candidates seeking appointments on the University of North Carolina’s governing board aren’t strangers to lawmakers – many of their names have repeatedly shown up on checks cashed to the politicians’ campaign accounts.

The 30 people currently vying for appointment to the board and their immediate family members have contributed more than $1 million to state campaign accounts since 2007, according to an analysis conducted by Democracy North Carolina, a government watchdog group, for N.C. Policy Watch.

The most generous of this year’s applicants, by far, is John Fennebresque, the current chair of the UNC Board of Governors. Fennebresque, who is up for reappointment from the state Senate, and his wife have sent more than $260,000 to campaign coffers since 2007.

Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on their slate of candidates this week, and each will choose eight individuals to serve four-year terms on the board that set policies and oversee the state’s 17-campuses in North Carolina’s university system. (Click here and here to see a full slate of candidates, and scroll down to bottom for breakdown of contributions.)

The UNC Board of Governors has long been a place where campaign contributors and their family members are rewarded with seats on the prominent board, said Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina. That happened when Democrats controlled state as well as now, as Republicans call the shots in the state legislature and the governor’s office.

“It’s been the case that political donors and fundraisers get into this prestigious position of guiding the university and getting the perks that come with that,” Hall said. “It is pay to play.”

That leaves the average citizen at a disadvantage, he said, with the members of the university governing board that makes policy decisions about tuition increases, financial aid and campus needs coming from elite segments of the state.

“They can lose that feeling for what life is like for ordinary North Carolinians,” Hall said.

The contributions, which include the money donated by the applicants as well as their close family members, primarily fell in the hands of Republican state officials like Gov. Pat McCrory ($189,935), the N.C. Republican Party ($134,066) or top Republican lawmakers like state Sen. Phil Berger ($85,520) and former N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis ($52,300), now a U.S. Senator, according to the Democracy NC analysis.

Other significant contributors include J. Edgar Broyhill, a Republican Winston-Salem investment banker and member of the prominent family of furniture manufactures. Broyhill and his close family members have donated $128,615 since 2007, primarily to Republican causes and candidates.

Anna Spangler Nelson, a Charlotte businesswoman currently on the board, and her family have donated   $103,087 to state campaigns in that same time period, to politicians of both political parties. Nelson, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is the daughter of billionaire C.D. Spangler, a past president of the UNC system.

This year’s crop of hopefuls is applying as the controversy and change surround the public university system held up as one of North Carolina’s crown jewels, and credited in decades past with spurring the economic prosperity that had set the state apart from its Southern neighbors.

Having governing board members on four-year cycles where they seek approval from political entities like a state legislature can move the focus from serving the general public, said Richard Novak, a senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“If someone wants to be on the board of governors, they have to be up in the legislature lobbying or trying to secure votes,” Novak said. “Someone can make the legislature more of a constituency for the board of governors than the public.”

Novak said it’s not unusual for public university boards to take on members that are political donors, but impropriety becomes a factor when those donations are used as leverage for seats. A handful of other states have tried to avoid those scenarios by using third-party screeners to vet applicants before political leaders make their appointments, he said.

“They ought to be judged on their performance, their loyalty to the institutions and their ability to represent the public,” Novak said. “Not on their political affiliation.”

The political makeup of the UNC Board of Governors has shifted since 2011 from Democratic to Republican control, in line with the shift in power that the state has seen in the state legislature and governor’s office. The current board also struggles in racial and gender diversity – the 32 members include six women and all but three of the voting members of the governing board are white.

The new members of the UNC Board of Governors will be joining the board at a critical time, as the board chooses a new president after pushing current UNC President Tom Ross out, and as the appointed members prepare to embark on a debate of how to “right-size” the university to contend with years of state budget gaps while costs shifted to families and students in increased tuition and fees.

Board chair one of the biggest donors

Fennebresque, the current chair of the UNC Board of Governors, has been generous to the state lawmakers tasked with his reappointment as well as other state campaigns.

A Charlotte lawyer with the prominent lobbying and law firm McGuire Woods, Fennebresque did not return phone calls this week seeking comment about his campaign contributions. After attending the prestigious Choate preparatory school in Connecticut, he received his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his law degree from Vanderbilt University, according to a 2014 press release about his chairmanship.

Since 2007, he and his wife have donated $260,585 to North Carolina political campaigns, with more than $250,000 coming directly from John Fennebresque, according to the Democracy N.C. analysis.

Despite his high levels of political giving, Fennebresque has conversely said he isn’t that engaged with state politics.

He alluded to that during a January press conference following the board’s decision to get rid of Ross, the president of the UNC system since 2011, when he was asked if lawmakers asked for the change in leadership.

“I just know people who live in Raleigh talk about politics, but I don’t live in Raleigh,” Fennebresque said, denying that pressure came from outside the university board.

Not mentioned by Fennebresque then was the $260,585 he and his wife have donated to state politicians since 2007. He’s primarily donated to Republicans, but has supported Democrats like N.C. State Treasurer Janet Cowell and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, records from the N.C. State Board of Elections show.

In 2014 alone, Fennebresque wrote out $62,500 in campaign contributions, an amount that exceeds the $46,334 that the average North Carolina household earns in income that year.

His 2014 donations also include $24,000 he gave to Republican Senate members like President Pro-Tem Phil Berger and state Sens. Chad Barefoot, Tamara Barringer, Fletcher Hartsell and Jeff Tarte.

House members also received attention from Fennebresque, including a $5,000 check he wrote out to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, the House leader, in December, after the November election and before Moore had officially been appointed to his leadership role. Moore is also a past member of the board of governors, and one of the youngest to serve when he received his appointment in 1997.

In states that have seen significant political shifts, like North Carolina, it’s not unusual to see changes in the type of individuals selected for university system governing boards, said Novak, of the national governing board association.

“If they are angry at higher education, they tend to appoint members that they think are going to shake things up in higher education,” Novak said.

There could be an element of that emerging in North Carolina.

Broyhill, one of those seeking an appointment, has spent several years on the board of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a Raleigh-based conservative think-tank that has pushed for a smaller university system primarily focused on meeting the state’s workforce needs. The center is primarily funded through Art Pope’s family foundation.

Steven Long, an existing governing board member not up for re-appoinment this year, also previously served on the board of the Civitas Institute, another conservative group funded by Art Pope’s family foundation. Long lashed out at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights earlier this year, accusing the law school center of being too focused on racial injustices and engaging in partisan causes.

Former state Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington attorney who resigned from the state legislature last year, is also hoping to join the UNC Board of Governors.

Goolsby was known during his time in the legislature for his sharp criticisms, once referring to the weekly protests led by NAACP’s Rev. William Barber as “Moron Mondays.”

He was also forbidden last year by the N.C. Secretary of State to work as an investment advisor, after clients of a company he co-owned complained they lost money and were kept in the dark about investment strategies.

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Want to see the campaign finance data? You can view the campaign contributions by recipients here, or the individual contributions here.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.