Officials at the University of North Carolina have given a conservative think-tank hundreds of emails from a professor who has been an outspoken critic of the state’s Republican governor and statehouse leaders.
The Raleigh-based Civitas Institute used the state's public records law to ask for for six weeks of phone logs, calendar entries and email correspondence from the head of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity -- raising complaints from academics across the state that the request was an attempt to intimidate the professor for his political views.
The two groups at each side of the records filing disagree starkly on what they see as the purpose of the request. Francis De Luca, director of Civitas, says it’s part of an investigation started in 2011 on whether the poverty center, which is part of a state-funded university, uses government resources for political purposes. But Professor Gene Nichol, who heads the poverty center, says he’s being targeted for harshly criticizing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in newspaper editorials.
The institute highlighted in an article last week its conclusion from more than 1,000 pages of emails: That the poverty center organized an event last year that the institute says was political.
De Luca said the conference held on Nov. 25 titled “Poverty, Partnerships, and the Public Good” had a political purpose because many guests were from liberal advocacy organizations, such as the North Carolina Justice Center and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. The guest list obtained by Civitas is largely comprised of UNC and Duke University employees.
“This is just wrong,” De Luca said. “If they want to do this, go out, raise your own money and do it. Don’t take the taxpayer money and support a particular point of view.”
Nichol responded that the event was an effort to analyze how laws passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in 2013 have affected people of low income in the state. The conference was mentioned in a December newsletter and reported by a WUNC reporter who also spoke at the event.
Nichol says it’s no coincidence that Civitas’ public records request, which was filed in October and fulfilled in December, was submitted just days after he wrote a column in the Raleigh News & Observer calling Gov. McCrory “Hapless Pat” and chiding him for not attending the funeral of civil rights leader Julius Chambers. Civitas was co-founded by businessman Art Pope, who serves as Gov. McCrory’s budget director.
"I think everybody knows that if I started writing pieces that were supportive of Gov. McCrory, these open records requests would end,” Nichol said. “They’d probably start sending me money.”
De Luca says he has called on the UNC Board of Governors to investigate the center and has requested six more weeks of email correspondence from Nichol, records pertaining to the Nov. 25 conference and detailed yearly budgets of the center since 2010.
Nichol says he will continue to write about publicly elected officials and about policies that have an impact on low-income people in the state.