CFCC officials used private email to avoid media scrutiny over then-College President Ted Spring. The college’s chief financial officer declined to give Spring a college gas card because she feared he’d use it to fill up his wife’s car. Spring blackmailed a subordinate and placed a gag order on his employees.
Those are some of the most interesting claims in a 16-page Statement of Material Facts filed in federal court Friday by The Board of Trustees of Cape Fear Community College. They are being sued by Spring, who resigned in January 2015 after a series of WECT investigative reports shed light on his questionable spending of public money.
The document filing is the latest development in the civil lawsuit Spring filed against CFCC and its trustees, seeking back pay, damages, and reinstatement to his job as college president. The trustees have filed a Motion for Summary judgement, in which a judge could potentially dismiss the case if it was deemed to lack merit, but barring that, the case could be heard as early as this fall.
The filing states Spring's "senior staff had almost unanimously recoiled from him" and he "alienated nearly everyone at the College."
Private emails, private public relations firm
In the Fall of 2014, WECT aired a series of reports detailing Spring’s purchases with his college-issued credit card. Those purchases included airfare and meals for Spring’s wife, upgraded airline seats, and memberships at private social clubs. We also uncovered that Spring was receiving mileage reimbursement of 56 cents/mile to drive a car he was provided at no cost by CFCC.
According to the newly filed court documents, Debbie Elliott, who runs local public relations firm Talk, Inc., contacted the college after seeing our reports. Her firm is in the business of crisis management, and she suggested the college could benefit from her help.
The college spent $7,500 to hire Elliott and, according to the trustees, they were not made aware of this arrangement or expense before Spring approved it.
Court papers show Elliott told Spring and other college officials there was potential for pushback because her hiring could be “perceived as inappropriate use of taxpayer funds.” The college already had its own media relations staff on the payroll.
“Ms. Elliott also voiced concern that hiring her firm would look bad for the College because hiring a crisis management expert would show that the College was in crisis,” court documents say, referencing the deposition of former CFCC Public Relations Chief David Hardin.
According to depositions from Hardin, Elliott, and then-President of Institutional Advancement, Margaret Robison, “Agreement was reached…to use personal email to avoid the Public Records Act.”
Court documents indicate they used personal emails to communicate among themselves about the issues dealt with by Debbie Elliott. The final email communication referenced is an email Spring sent to Elliott minutes after his resignation in January 2015, informing her he had resigned.
“Blackmailing” a subordinate
According to a deposition of Dr. Amanda Lee, who then served as Vice President of Instruction and was promoted to College President after Spring’s resignation, the college was vetting consultant Trent Hightower to conduct a study of Continuing Education at the college. During the vetting process, she says Spring told them he thought his former associate, Bill Loope, from West Virginia would be a better choice to conduct the study.
The College paid Loope $14,100 for his report.
According to court records, several CFCC officials expressed concerns about the report after it was completed, saying it was “poorly designed”, inconsistent with the college’s mission, and that it made suggestions that were not legal under state statutes.
Rather than spending more money, Lee brought in New Hanover County employee Beth Schrader, who did not charge the college for her work facilitating the reorganization of Continuing Education.
After this happened, several trustees confronted Spring with concerns about the Loope report. Spring emailed the board chair on January 7, 2015, explaining he would make a presentation to the board about the Continuing Education study.
The very same day, Spring called employee Melissa Singler into his office. According to Singler’s deposition, Spring asked her to tell the board at its next meeting that the reorganization of Continuing Education had been implemented based on Loope’s report.
Singler told him she thought “get[ting] her to lie to the board” was a bad idea. She says Spring told her he would base his decision on whether to promote her to Dean of Continuing Education based on what she told the board at the upcoming meeting.
“I felt he was blackmailing me,” Singler said. College employees who saw Singler come out of Spring’s office following that meeting said she was visibly and physically upset.
If she did not get the promotion she was seeking, Singler had hoped to fall back to her prior job as Internal Auditor. But she then learned Spring had given instructions to advertise the Internal Auditor position to other potential hires, according to affidavits from several college employees.
"The situation that Dr. Spring put me in as an employee of the college was extremely traumatic," Singler said. "If I lied for Spring, I was going to lose my job. There's no way that the Board was going to believe me, and I certainly couldn't prove to them that we used anything Bill Loope presented as a foundation for restructure. And if I didn't lie, then I had a president who could terminate me."
Rather than lie to the board about the Loope report, Singler called out sick on the day of the trustee’s meeting.
Employees question Spring’s spending
Well before WECT learned about Spring’s questionable spending through a public records request, CFCC employees had privately raised concerns to Spring.
“I think that the feeling was that he looked at things very much in how it would most benefit him, rather than what would most benefit the college,” Chief H.R. Officer John Upton said in a deposition, sharing that most of the other college vice presidents shared his concerns.
The college’s Chief Financial Officer, Camellia Rice, no longer wanted to work for him, according to her deposition, and his behavior accelerated her decision to retire.
Rice testified that despite her objections, she received a “direct order” from Spring to pay for his wife’s travel expenses.
“I expect you to pay for my wife’s travel expenses. Everywhere I’ve worked, the college has paid for my wife’s travel expenses when she goes with me,” Rice recalled Spring saying. She said none of Spring’s predecessors had ever asked for money for their spouse’s expenses.
“Rice said she and her staff thought it was wrong, ‘[b]ut he was college president. He was my boss,” according to excerpts from her deposition.
Spring's administrative assistant Michelle Lee said this made Rice upset. Lee said Rice once referred to Spring as "a greedy S.O.B."
After WECT articles began to question those very expenses, Spring reimbursed the college.
The court documents also state that Spring wanted the college to provide him with a vehicle, but the Board of Trustees declined.
Later, through an arrangement with the college sports department and Enterprise Rental Car, Spring was given use of a Ford Fusion in exchange for advertising at sporting events and the rental of a GMC Yukon for the sports department at a rate of $1,000 per month, paid with student activity fees.
Trustee Louis Burney questioned this arrangement when he learned of it, was dissatisfied with it, and the courtesy car was eventually returned. But not before Spring had received hundreds of dollars in mileage reimbursements from the college for his use of that car.
Spring’s only expense to use the car was gas, which costs far less than the 56-cents-per-mile reimbursement rate. Court documents note Rice would not give Spring a gas card for that car, because she feared he would use it to fill up his wife’s car.
After Burney questioned Spring, Rice says Spring confronted her and found out she’d provided Burney the paperwork that revealed the courtesy car arrangement. According to her deposition, Spring then instructed all vice presidents that they would have to communicate with the board through him moving forward.
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