Lawyer who obtained security video of ECU interim chancellor claimed to be working for legislative leaders

By: - November 8, 2019 5:30 am

Peter Romary (Image: Twitter)

Peter Romary (Image: Twitter)

Peter Romary worked for UNC board member Tom Fetzer, but claimed connections to Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore 

A Greenville lawyer claimed he was working with members of the UNC Board of Governors and leaders of the North Carolina legislature when trying to obtain video that led to the resignation of former Interim ECU Chancellor Dan Gerlach.

Emails and text messages released this week show attorney Peter Romary and UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer applying pressure and referencing powerful state lawmakers in an independent investigation of the ECU chancellor. They kept this work hidden from the full board of governors, UNC System President Bill Roper and the international law firm the system had hired to officially investigate the matter.

At issue: video from Greenville traffic and security cameras that appears to show Gerlach stumbling and weaving down a sidewalk after a September night that included drinking and dancing with ECU students. The video shows him then getting into his car and driving away.

The video, leaked anonymously to media outlets shortly after Romary obtained it, led to Gerlach’s resignation after weeks on leave as the UNC system’s investigation unfolded.

But the video was already part of that ongoing investigation. Lawyers from Womble Bond Dickinson, the international law firm UNC hired for the search, first inquired about obtaining the video from the City of Greenville on Oct. 14. They were told they would need to file a petition with Pitt County Superior Court.

Court records show three parties filed such a petition — all on Oct. 25.

Romary was the first, at 9:35 a.m.

Womble Bond Dickinson filed at 3:36 p.m.

Gerlach’s own attorney, S. McKinley Gray III, filed at 4:40 p.m.

Romary’s petition didn’t mention the UNC Board of Governors or any state lawmakers.

Instead, he claimed to be representing the Police Benevolent Association of North Carolina and the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police. Though those organizations say they didn’t authorize him to use their names, Romary had worked for them on a pro bono basis in the past and claims individual members contacted him about combating the notion that Gerlach may have been set-up by off-duty police. That rumor was spawned by the edited, multi-angle camera footage of his night out drinking that was anonymously sent to media outlets last month, kicking off the initial controversy over his fitness for the position.

But before anyone obtained the city of Greenville camera footage, a flurry of emails and text messages show Romary and Fetzer applying pressure to the city staff — and suggesting powerful political interests wanted the footage released quickly and quietly.

Applying pressure, dropping prominent names

On October 15, one day after Womble Bond Dickinson first inquired about the video footage, Romary emailed the Greenville city attorney’s office about getting it himself.

“I have been retained by some private parties, including a couple members of the ECU Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors,” Romary wrote. “This in response to an ever changing story from Dan Gerlach and an allegation of a ‘set up’ by him and some who support him.”

“I have also spoken to a Judge, friend of 25 years, and they are quite annoyed about this,” Romary wrote. “So, I am writing, requesting access to or copies of GPD surveillance camera footage.”

Fetzer, for his part, contacted Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne), the House majority leader, on Oct. 22 to enlist his help in obtaining the footage through Romary.

Board member Tom Fetzer contacted Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne), the House majority leader, on Oct. 22 asking Bell to use his position as a legislator to help Peter Romary obtain the tapes.

In text messages obtained by Policy Watch, Fetzer informed Bell of Romary’s work.

“John—Don Phillips is the Asst City Atty for Greenville overseeing the police Dept,” Fetzer texted Bell. “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, a Republican lobbyist, former Raleigh mayor and past chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, then asked Bell to use his position as a legislator to help Romary obtain the tapes.

“Tell him the General Assembly has an oversight role and that you would like the tapes released,” Fetzer wrote in a text to Bell about getting in touch with the Greenville city attorney. “Please do this today if possible.”

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

“I’ll try and work out something,” Bell texted Fetzer in reply.

After that, Romary made reference to Bell in texts to the city attorney’s office, suggesting he would be representing lawmakers in his attempts to get the tapes.

“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 an Oct. 21 text to Phillips, the assistant city attorney overseeing the Greenville Police Department. “Of course legislature folks want them yesterday.”

Romary followed that up with an email on Oct. 22.

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

Romary went on to say he believed UNC System President Bill Roper would be making a decision on whether to reinstate Gerlach that week. Romary warned it was “highly likely” that Roper “will be adopting the story of Mr. Gerlach that corrupt GPD officers set him up on orders from a ‘cabal’ of Judges, Lawyers, [Board of Trustees members], [UNC Board of Governors] members along with political adversaries from Mr. Gerlach’s days with [former] Governor [Mike Easley….”

“I have conveyed through to the Speaker; President Pro Tem and Majority leader that there is only one video currently being sought (others could be obtained at other times),” Romary wrote. “Witnesses state that no [law enforcement officers] were present and that I have offered to draft up the order or the piece describing what would be needed [to obtain the video].”

The next day, Oct. 23, Romary followed up again with a long text to the assistant city attorney in which he suggested the further involvement of state legislators and suggested Phillips might gain political favor in Raleigh and Washington D.C. if he helped Romary’s cause.

“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,” Romary wrote in the text.

“I said it was possible (no promise) we could have wrapped up by Friday,” Romary continued. “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).”

Denials, political fallout

The political fallout from Romary and Fetzer’s emails and texts was swift this week.

Rep. Bell has since sent Romary a “cease and desist” letter.

Bell and Senate leader Phil Berger denied any connection to Romary. On Tuesday, Bell sent Romary a “cease and desist” letter.

“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 wrote in the letter. “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 same day, Harry Smith, the politically combative ECU graduate and former chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, resigned from the board.

Asked about his connection to Romary, who has said he was a client and long aware of his work, Smith denied ever hiring Romary or having anything to do with the Gerlach controversy.

“I have never one time paid Peter Romary a dime of money or asked him to do anything for me,” Smith said. “Peter would sometimes do things and give them to us, but I’ve never asked him to do anything. And I believe Peter is on record saying I had nothing to do with this Dan Gerlach situation.”

But a tense email exchange between Romary and Tom Shanahan, general counsel for the UNC System, seems to contradict that.

Shanahan sent two separate “cease and desist” letters to Romary  — on Oct. 28 and Nov. 1 — telling him to stop representing himself as doing investigative work on behalf of the university system or its board of governors. The system office released the letters this week.

“We understand that you have represented to one or more individuals that you have been engaged by the Board of Governors to perform ‘investigative work’ for the University,” Shanahan wrote on Oct. 28. “As you know, the UNC Board of Governors has not at any point authorized you to perform any work on the University’s behalf, including but not limited to any ‘investigative work.’ You shall immediately cease and desist from any future such unauthorized and inaccurate representations, either orally or in writing, otherwise. You are not an employee or agent of the University and have no authority to perform any work on its behalf. Be aware that no member of the Board of Governors or any of the Boards of Trustees have the authority to engage you or hire you on behalf of the university or any of its boards.”

Former UNC Board of Governors chair Harry Smith has denied ever hiring Romary or having anything to do with the Gerlach controversy.

In a reply email the same day, Romary disputed Shanahan’s description of the facts.

“Harry Smith hired me through Poyner & Spruill and I have the letter of engagement containing scope of work,” Romary wrote.  “I have compiled information for Harry and submitted the same. I cannot and will not provide you with said letter unless Harry Smith tells me to do so and waives privilege.”

“My role in the [Western Carolina University] matter has been known for some time,” Romary wrote. “Harry’s engagement of me has been known of, by many, for some time. My engagement by Tom Fetzer has been known of for some time.”

As Policy Watch reported last year, the Western Carolina University chancellor search process came apart in the summer of 2018 when Fetzer intervened and, some members said, overstepped his role.

After a final candidate was chosen from finalists by then-UNC President Margaret Spellings, Fetzer contacted Romary, who he described as a friend at the “screening firm” QVerity, which Fetzer said was as “founded and staffed by former CIA personnel.”

Fetzer said he was prompted to ask that the company do a check on the candidate, whose name was redacted from the emails, when he heard the candidate had lectured somewhere (location redacted) of which he had never heard.

Fetzer argued that the candidate had misrepresented information when applying — a charge others on the board disputed.

Fellow board members charged that Fetzer improperly interfered with the search process by giving the candidate’s name and information — which were supposed to remain confidential — to an outside group.

The candidate withdrew from consideration, scuttling a search process that had already cost $100,000.

Fetzer later admitted he had a conversation with UNC President Margaret Spellings about being appointed interim chancellor at the Western Carolina himself. Two former trustees at the school asked if they could put his name forward, Fetzer said, but in a telephone conversation with Spellings, he was told she had already decided on an interim. Fetzer denies he pursued the chancellor’s position himself, saying he only had his friend look into the chosen candidate because he believed the vetting process wasn’t thorough enough.

Fetzer similarly denied to Policy Watch that he is interested in the ECU chancellorship or any other open leadership position in the UNC system.

Fetzer did not return calls for comment from Policy Watch this week but admitted in an interview with WBTV that he hired Romary because he did not trust the firm UNC hired to investigate the Gerlach incident.

“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 told WBTV this week.

“I believe that investigators knew or should have known that he drove home in early October.” Fetzer said. “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.”

A number of Fetzer’s fellow Board of Governors members disagreed.

Board approaching a crisis point?

Former UNC System President Margaret Spellings left the top position in January.

Four members of the board spoke to Policy Watch this week, asking not to be identified so that they could describe discussions held in closed session.

Board members have long been nervous about Fetzer and Smith’s tendency to act independently, sometimes in ways that are at odds with steps already being taken by the full board or the UNC system office, those board members said.

It was actions of this kind, the members said — that led to the undermining of former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and former UNC Chancellor Carol Folt. Both women ultimately resigned.

After the controversy over the Western Carolina chancellor search and the forced resignation of former ECU chancellor Cecil Staton, board members’ patience has grown thin, these members said. They ultimately believed Harry Smith had to go, these members said, and many now feel the same way about Fetzer.

“It is insulting to Bill Roper as the leader we chose for the UNC System to handle things this way,” one board member said. “It’s really insulting to all of us. If you have concerns, bring them to the board. If you have concerns, bring them to the president. But doing what you like behind everyone’s back because you feel you and your people know best and will do better is just unacceptable.”

The next full board meeting of the UNC Board of Governors is Nov. 14 and 15 at Elizabeth City State University.

“I would expect it’s going to be tense,” the same board member said. “But this needs to get resolved, one way or another.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.