Attorneys counter claims against former CFCC president

Attorneys counter claims against former CFCC president
Ted Spring (Source: CFCC)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Attorneys for former Cape Fear Community College President Dr. Ted Spring say claims from college trustees that he was unethical in his dealings as college president are irrelevant to his claim that his civil rights were violated in his final day at the college.

Spring's attorneys also say that any value of the alleged claim by Spring's former Chief Financial Officer that he was a "greedy S.O.B" are "outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, and wasting time."

Attorneys Gary Shipman and Kyle Nutt recently filed a response to an Amended Statement of Material Facts provided by the CFCC Board of Trustees. This is part of an ongoing lawsuit Spring filed after he resigned from the college nearly two years ago in the wake of a series of WECT reports about his questionable spending of college money.

Spring claims he was forced to resign

Spring claims he was forced out of his job and his rights to due process were violated.

The college contends that due process rights don't apply here, because Spring resigned, negating the need for the termination process. But Spring says he only resigned after being threatened with immediate termination in a closed session meeting with the CFCC Board of Trustees on January 22, 2015.

Many of the trustees have now been deposed for the lawsuit. All the parties seem to agree that Spring asked for more time to consider their request when they asked him to resign that night. At issue is whether or not then BOT Chairman Jason Harris said, "If you don't resign now, we will go back into open session and we will fire you."

Those are the exact words Spring alleges Harris used.

Many of the trustees did not recall those words being used, but Teresa Williamson, who was taking minutes at the board meeting the night in question, testified Spring was told that he would be terminated if he did not resign immediately.

Conspiracy alleged against Dr. Spring

While many insiders at Cape Fear Community College say news of Spring's sudden departure came as a surprise, his attorneys say insiders conspired to push him out.

"Prior to the Board meeting, college chief of police Dan Wilcox received a call from Dr. Amanda Lee, who asked if he was going to be at the Board meeting because of 'tension.' Wilcox was approached by [Trustee] Bill Turner just prior to the meeting and was told the Board was trying to get enough votes to move forward with termination of Dr. Spring," Spring's attorneys wrote in their court filing.

During that meeting, the trustees called Spring's vice presidents in one by one to ask for their assessments of his performance. When Lee's turn came, she told the trustees that Spring threatened to deny employee Melissa Singler a promotion if she didn't convince the Board that a questionable report he had authorized was worthy of the $14,000 it cost the college. Singler had described it as blackmail.

In her deposition, Teresa Williamson testified the tide turned against Dr. Spring after the Board learned about his alleged threats against Singler, and the majority of trustees began pushing for his resignation.

Spring's attorneys contend he was never given the opportunity to defend himself against the blackmail allegations before he was asked to resign.

They also say Singler lied by calling out sick on the night she was supposed to speak to the board, rather than telling the board her concerns about Spring, putting her credibility in question.

Private emails cited in Spring’s counter claim

Adding weight to the claim that Spring did not leave voluntarily are newly released emails cited in Spring's latest legal filing. The emails between trustees Jason Harris, Louis Burney and Woody White discuss the details of the severance package Spring was offered the night he resigned.

"I do not feel we should offer any him [sic] any level of severance package at this point. It would be irresponsible of us given the information that we have learned since his dismissal," Burney wrote to his two fellow trustees.

Spring's attorneys note in their filing that White replied, "I agree with him completely. I do not support paying him anything, given what we know and the uncertain outcome of the dual investigations that I understand are taking place. If you can poll the board and instruct [our attorney] Joe Austin to revoke any pending offer, maybe that is the best way to proceed."

There were two known investigations. One by the State Auditor's office that eventually determined Spring misspent tens of thousands of dollars in college money, and a second investigation by the SBI into concerns that the misspending rose to the level of criminal misconduct. The State Conference of District Attorneys recently declined to move forward with criminal charges after reviewing the results of the SBI investigation.

In the filing, Spring's attorneys also ask the judge to consider White's wording in a later email that reads, "The public ought to have the right to know why a public employee was dismissed."

Severance dispute

The severance package the trustees were discussing was the very thing that caused the negotiations between the college and Dr. Spring to fall apart.

Attorneys representing the Board of Trustees added a provision that would have deducted from Spring's six month severance package the dollar amount the auditor found Spring misspent while he was college president. Spring says that was not part of their verbal agreement when he submitted his letter of resignation.

Spring says he maintained the courtesy car

A courtesy car that Spring got for free from the college has been a focal point of the case against him. Of specific concern to the Board of Trustees was the fact that Spring applied for and received 56 cents per mile in reimbursement from CFCC to drive that car, when his only expense under the arrangement with Enterprise Rental car was gas.

Spring's attorneys maintain that Spring did not request the courtesy car, but did accept the offer when then CFCC Athletic Director Robbie McGee mentioned Enterprise was donating the use of a Ford Fusion to the college. The courtesy car was part of an agreement involving the long term rental of an SUV for the Athletic Department.

McGee had a college issued gas card for the SUV, and Spring requested a gas card for the Fusion. However, CFO Camellia Rice declined Spring's request for a gas card, concerned that he would use it to "fill up his wife's car" according to her deposition. Instead, Spring was told to request mileage reimbursement when he used the car for official college business.

While the rate he was reimbursed likely resulted in Spring turning a small profit for every mile he drove, Spring's attorneys maintain that financial arrangement was the result of Rice's decision to deny him a gas card and have him apply for mileage instead.

Spring's attorneys also say he covered the cost of some of the maintenance on the Fusion. McGee testified he took the Fusion to be serviced at Black's Tire per the arrangement with Enterprise Rental Car.

Nature of State Auditor’s Visit Disputed

In December 2014, a month before Spring resigned, the State Auditor’s office sent investigators to the CFCC campus. Members of the CFCC Board of Trustees received an email from the President’s office that day which read:

Dr. Spring would like you to know that Geary W. Knapp, JD, CFE, Assistant State Auditor – Investigative Division, is on campus today.  He is pulling some personnel files and looking at travel reimbursements from May 2013-May 2014.   Thank you.

We reported that it was not immediately clear if there was a connection to what the investigators were looking into and Spring’s questionable travel spending on airline upgrades and expenses for his wife’s travel that our reports had focused on.

During the deposition process, Investigator Knapp testified that his December 2014 visit to CFCC was precipitated by media coverage, but was unrelated to the findings that were eventually detailed in the State Auditor’s report critical of Spring’s spending.
It remains unclear what exactly the investigators were looking into during that December visit.

Other Claims

The rest of the 47-page response filed by Spring's attorneys pokes holes in other claims against him. For example, they maintain that Spring hired PR Consultant Debbie Elliott to help make the case to the county for funding the Advanced and Emerging Technologies building when some were questioning if the college needed an additional multi-million dollar building.

Attorneys for the college trustees allege Elliott was hired to help Spring correct an ongoing image crisis that started when WECT began airing stories about Spring's spending.

Evidence in the court filings supports both claims: that Elliott put together a presentation which helped get the needed votes for funding the AETC building, but it also shows she counseled college staff on how to handle ongoing media requests about Spring's expenses.

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