WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees is awaiting a decision by a federal judge, on whether the lawsuit filed by former College President Ted Spring should be dismissed for lack of merit. Spring is suing to be reinstated as President, for back pay and for damages.
Spring resigned in January 2015 following months of media coverage by WECT about his questionable spending of college money on everything from travel for his wife, to social club memberships not allowed by his contract with CFCC, to airline upgrades and alcohol.
The State Auditor launched an investigation as a result of our reports, and ultimately found Spring had improperly spent tens of thousands of public dollars. The SBI is also investigating his spending, and we hope to know in the coming months if criminal charges will result from what we uncovered.
As part of the court filing, attorneys representing the Board of Trustees submitted hundreds of pages of depositions from key witnesses as well as contracts, email and text exchanges, and financial records that help tell the back story of what transpired during the two years Spring served as President of CFCC.
WECT has read through every page, and we are sharing some of the highlights we learned in this story.
One of the most damaging things we discovered in our investigation of Spring was his arrangement to obtain a "courtesy car" from Enterprise Rental Car without the knowledge or permission of the Board of Trustees. Trustees testified that Spring asked for a car as part of his contract negotiation, but they declined that request.
"The Board's position was that the Plaintiff could afford a suitable personal vehicle based on the [$250,000] salary that he would be paid. Likewise, the Board understood the Plaintiff would like a residence provided to him and his family," Trustee Zander Guy wrote in an affidavit for the court proceedings. "The Board did not think that was an appropriate perk for the community college president."
Still, several months after he was hired, Spring obtained one of two cars the school leased through an agreement with Enterprise Rental Car and the CFCC Athletic Department. Student activity fees were used to pay over $1,000 a month to lease an SUV to transport student athletes, and Spring was able to use a Ford Fusion as part of that arrangement.
Although the car was provided to him at no cost other than gas, Spring requested hundreds of dollars in reimbursement for mileage on the vehicle at the rate of 56 cents per mile, far greater than his actual out-of-pocket cost. He also raised eyebrows by seeking reimbursements for trips of one mile or less on many occasions.
"Way back when I first started, I was told that if I ever traveled on college business, that I was to record that I was off campus and what I was doing and the mileage would be recorded, and it was for liability purposes," Spring later explained of his early training at another institution. He says that's why he documented even the shortest of trips. He said his staff would use that information to put together his mileage reimbursement requests.
According to the closed session minutes from a January 6, 2015 Executive Committee Board of Trustees meeting, Trustee Louis Burney "asked Dr. Spring to explain why he was in possession of a vehicle when he was not entitled to one in his employment agreement. Dr. Spring stated that it was a free car and that he did not know it was a problem. Mr. Burney asked Dr. Spring if he knew that he had driven this vehicle approximately 25,000 miles over the last year to which Dr. Spring stated he did not know who had driven the car."
"[Trustee Bill] Turner asked Dr. Spring why he did not return the leased vehicle after he was instructed to do so [in November]. Dr. Spring state that he would turn in the car the next day."
Spring later clarified in his deposition that he was the one who had driven the car. The Federal Highway Administration estimates the average mileage the typical driver put on a car each year at 13,500 miles.
Spring also claimed to have personally maintained the car for oil changes, etc., but did not produce documentation to that effect. Additionally, former Athletic Director Robbie McGee testified that he would take Dr. Spring's car to get oil changes, which were paid for by Enterprise Rental Car under the contract agreement.
In addition to college money spent on travel and meals for Spring's wife uncovered in our investigation, court records reveal Spring inquired about having Andrea Spring put on the payroll.
"He asked me if it would be possible for his wife to work on a part-time position in the foundation," former CFCC Human Resources Chief John Upton testified. "I told him I did not think so because of our nepotism policy."
While she didn't take a job with the college, employees testified they were asked to print business cards for her with the college logo.
"Dr. Spring asked Michelle [Lee] and I to have some business cards made up," Spring's Administrative Assistant Teresa Williamson testified. "And it kind of took both of us by surprise because she wasn't an employee of the school."
Williamson said Spring explained his wife would take the cards to conferences and use them to enter for freebies like electronics.
"You go around and place them in – at the tables, and they would have drawings from the business cards, and people could win prizes. And that is what I understood from Dr. Spring, is what she'd do with them," Williamson explained.
Spring testified that he was told by Upton before he ever came to the college that Andrea's travel expenses would be covered, but Upton does not recall that conversation.
"It did not seem unusual to me that the college would pick up the expenses for that conference," Spring said during his deposition of he and his wife's travel expenses that came under scrutiny. "Now, in -- in North Carolina apparently it is unusual. In my job in West Virginia, it was not. You'll notice that even in one of the paragraphs I wrote to John, I could even actually have hired Andrea as an employee and paid her in my contract in West Virginia."
The West Virginia Community and Technical College System confirmed to WECT that there is no nepotism policy that would expressly prohibit the hiring of a family member in their system. They said public money cannot be used to purchase alcohol there, but it was up to individual college campuses to determine their own travel policy.
New River Community and Technical College, where Spring served as President before coming to CFCC, chose to adopt the West Virginia Community and Technical College system wide travel policy as its own.
We found no part of that policy allowing for reimbursement of a spouse's travel expenses to an out-of-state conference. Furthermore, the policy states that for employees, "Reimbursement for commercial airline travel shall include the actual expense or cost of the least expensive logical fare."
However, Dr. Spring's $163,000 annual contract with New River, provided to us by the school Wednesday afternoon, did stipulate some of Mrs. Spring's expenses would be covered there.
"The Board recognizes that the spouse of a college president is often called upon to devote substantial time and energy to activities, which benefit the college. Your spouse is hereby authorized to serve when called upon as a representative of the institution, and to accept payment or reimbursement from the institution for expenses incurred in connection with such activity, to the extent such payments are authorized by you, and it is understood that your spouse may use facilities and other resources of the institution in the same manner as an employee when involved in such activity," Spring's contract with New River reads.
Trustees and top college employees did not mince words in their description of Spring during their testimony during formal depositions.
Trustee Sam Ibraham said Spring showed "poor character" by expensing half-mile trips to the college while he was making a $250,000 salary, and "poor judgment" for seeking reimbursement for his wife's meal and travel expenses. Ibraham says that after hearing from Spring's Vice Presidents that his behavior made them fear for their jobs, he began to think Spring behaved like "a tyrant."
Many top CFCC officials testified that they viewed Spring as dishonest. Trustee Woody White added "manipulative, incompetent…unethical….ineffective, untruthful, [and] narcissistic" to the list, concluding that Spring "had no business leading such a great school as CFCC."
"His explanations and attempts to mitigate his poor judgment fell woefully short," White added. "He was …a cancer for the school."
"We all felt like our jobs were threatened," Dr. Amanda Lee, who replaced Spring as CFCC President, testified. "The legalities were not important to Ted."
Kim Gant, Spring's VP for Institutional Effectiveness said the two years she spent working for Spring were "the worst of my professional life." She described Spring's personality as "Jekyll and Hyde" and says he "would change from charming to mean at any moment…and…humiliated me in front of my colleagues."
"I believed the Plaintiff had become so delusional that he was no longer able to understand that the issues with the College's Board of Trustees were his own fault," Gant added.
While trustees admit they would have initiated the termination process had Spring declined to resign, they said it was unnecessary because he offered his resignation when they expressed their displeasure with his performance on January 22, 2015. They said no one forced him to resign, and that they thought he accepted the opportunity quickly because it saved him the embarrassment of not having his contract renewed.
Regardless, they contend ending the relationship with Spring was in the best interest of the college.
While Spring says he was initially satisfied with the offer for six months severance pay, negotiations broke down when the school stipulated the severance package would be deducted by the amount the State Auditor found Spring had spent inappropriately at the school.
"I can't get a job, Joe," Spring told the attorney for the Board of Trustees he's suing. "And it's certainly not because I'm not good at what I do. It's not because I don't have the experience. It's simply because of that trash that's been printed in the newspaper about me."
Spring says he's had to sell his house because he is no longer employed, and is relying on Social Security and unemployment income to cover expenses for several dependents in his household.
During Spring's deposition, attorneys pointed out that media reports were based on objective facts, including expense reports, the State Auditor's findings, and confirmation by the SBI and NC Conference of District Attorneys that they were looking into Spring's spending at CFCC as part of a criminal investigation.
Spring blames Trustee Louis Burney, who served as the Chairman of the Finance Committee for the Board, for contacting the District Attorney about his concerns over how college money had been spent. Spring admitted during his deposition that Burney had the right to contact authorities if he thought a crime may have been committed, but feels it hurt his chances of finding another job.
Months before Burney's call to the District Attorney, Spring's questionable spending had been making headlines, and State Officials were already following the news coverage. WECT reports are cited dozens of times in the court documents, and state officials, including an SBI agent, admitted they were "concerned about what we read."
Additionally, Geary Knapp, an investigator for the State Auditor, testified, "We had received numerous media reports via our financial audit team down in Wilmington. And over the course of several months, you know, the media reports kept coming, and eventually we decided that was an issue that needed to be looked into."
In July of 2015, the state auditor released her findings from their investigation, which confirmed Spring used college money for his personal expenses, and was reimbursed for mileage above his actual out-of-pocket expenses.