The Pulse

Attorney involved in ECU scandal reprimanded by North Carolina State Bar

By: - October 14, 2021 8:30 am

A Hillsborough lawyer with ties to members of the UNC Board of Governors and high level GOP officials in North Carolina has been reprimanded by the North Carolina State Bar.

The action stems from a 2019 episode in which Peter Romary 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.

The video, from Greenville traffic and security cameras, appeared to show Gerlach stumbling and weaving down a sidewalk after a September night that included drinking and dancing with ECU students at a popular bar. The video showed Gerlach then getting into his car and driving away.

The UNC System investigated the incident. But Tom Fetzer, then a member of the UNC Board of Governors, decided to conduct a parallel and in some instances conflicting investigation of his own for which he enlisted Romary. E-mails and text messages showed Romary and Fetzer – a lobbyist, former mayor of Raleigh and one-time chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party –  applied pressure and referenced powerful state lawmakers in seeking the video and not cooperating with the official investigation. They kept this work hidden from the full board of governors, then-UNC System President Bill Roper and the international law firm the system had hired to officially investigate the matter.

In the state bar’s reprimand, summarized in the its Fall 2021 journal, the group said Romary’s actions crossed the line of its code of professional conduct.

“[R]omary asserted that he was representing members of the UNC Board of Governors and the ECU Board of Trustees, members of the North Carolina General Assembly, and the State (and National) Police Benevolent Association,” the group wrote in its summary. “These assertions were misrepresentations in that a reasonable lawyer under the circumstances would not have formed the opinion that these individuals and entities were his clients. During these communications, Romary also alleged without basis in fact that the law firm investigating the matter for the UNC system had potentially engaged in misconduct.”

“Romary later filed a petition with the court to obtain the video footage in which he purported to represent an organization that was not his client,” the group wrote. “Romary was reprimanded by the Grievance Committee for, among other things, making false statements of material fact to a third party and to a tribunal. In determining that reprimand was the appropriate discipline, the committee took into consideration Romary’s lack of prior discipline and the isolated nature of this incident.”

All licensed lawyers in North Carolina must be members of the state bar, a government agency, and adhere to its code.

Romary misrepresented himself in the ECU episode, the state bar concluded, including in e-mails to the Greenville City Attorney’s office.

“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 also applied pressure, contacting Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne), the House majority leader, to enlist his help in obtaining the footage through Romary.

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.”

“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 to work out something,” Bell texted back.

After that exchange, Romary began representing himself as connected to Bell and the legislature.

“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 the assistant city attorney overseeing the Greenville Police Department. “Of course legislature folks want them yesterday.”

After the episode was made public, the Police Benevolent Association and members of the General Assembly denied Fetzer or Romary were working on their behalf.

The ECU incident was not the only controversy in which Romary and Fetzer were involved during Fetzer’s tenure on the board from 2017 to 2020.

In 2018, Fetzer and Romary were also involved in the scuttled search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina University. Fetzer gave confidential candidate information to Romary, who suggested the final candidate had lied on their application. Other board members said that wasn’t true. The candidate ultimately withdrew their application amid concerns about confidentiality.

Fetzer’s fellow board members — and then-UNC President Margaret Spellings — criticized Fetzer for stepping outside of the board’s process and compromising the confidentiality of the selection process.

Fetzer later admitted he had spoken to Spellings about becoming interim chancellor at Western Carolina but was denied when she said she’d chosen someone else.

Fetzer abruptly resigned from the UNC Board of Governors last year, saying he needed to spend more time helping to homeschool his five children in Wilmington. That led some on the board to speculate he would pursue a chancellorship at one of the system’s schools. The UNC Board of Governors appoints chancellors and members of its board can apply, though they have to resign their positions on the board first. Earlier this year then-board member Darrel Allison resigned to pursue the chancellorship at Fayetteville State University. His lack of qualifications for the job, in relation to other candidates in the nationwide search, made his eventual appointment by his former colleagues highly controversial.

UNC-Wilmington, based in Fetzer’s hometown, is now searching for a new chancellor. Fetzer is expected to apply, members of the UNC Board of Governors and UNC-Wilmington’s board of trustees told Policy Watch this week.

Those members asked not to be identified so that they could discuss a confidential search process and characterize discussions among board members, some in closed session.

“I would be surprised if he wasn’t interested and surprised if he didn’t end up applying,” a UNC Board of Governors member said of Fetzer. “That doesn’t mean that he would ultimately be the choice. There’s a lot of history to deal with when you’re talking about Tom.”

Fetzer’s resignation from the board of governors came as the board was finalizing changes to its policies and procedures that would more strictly outline its members’ responsibilities. The policy changes included the ability to censure and recommend the removal of board members who overstep their roles. The changes were instigated by repeated problems with Fetzer acting in ways his colleagues said were inappropriate and possibly legally dangerous for the UNC System.

After his resignation last year, board members told Policy Watch Fetzer could “read the room” and tell it was time for him to go.

“I think the writing was on the wall for him that the board wasn’t going to put up with the kinds of things he was involved in,” one board member said. “We are putting some teeth into our policies and he is not stupid. He’s a very intelligent man. He knows if he continues to operate the way he has, he’s going to end up in trouble.”

“His personality is just not going to allow him to be on the board without going beyond the lines that most of us observe,” the board member said. “He just has the kind of nature where he’s going to do what he wants to do and he likes to get into it with people, and I think our board is trying to move beyond that. We’ve had too much of it in the last few years.”

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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.