Board chair responds to story about alleged mismanagement, retaliation at CFCC

Updated: Jan. 16, 2020 at 8:09 AM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Two days after a story broke where some of the top outgoing executives at Cape Fear Community College went public to challenge how the college is being managed, we’re hearing from the chairwoman of the Board of Trustees.

Former Human Resources Director Sharon Smith and former Information Technology Direct Kumar Lakhavani shared similar stories with WECT of what they describe as a hostile and retaliatory work environment, as well as poor management skills and a general lack of professionalism at the highest levels of the college.

WECT reached out to Board of Trustees Chair Ann David before the story aired. She acknowledged the board received an anonymous letter of concern just before the holidays but gave no details about what, if anything, was being done in response.

In our investigative report, CFCC insiders raised concerns about President Jim Morton promoting friends and allies to top jobs at the school without advertising the positions, pushing longtime employees out of their jobs in the process. Morton said he reorganized departments, and hired from within, so he was not required to advertise the positions. Employees also questioned the sizable raise he gave to his executive assistant, Michelle Lee, who is now making $105,000 a year, tens of thousands more than many program directors and deans at the college. The $11,000 raise came at a time when the college was dealing with millions of dollars of budget cuts.

After the story aired, detailing the concerns of Lakhavani, Smith, and half a dozen other high-level employees and former employees who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, we reached back out to David. We asked if she had a timeline to address the concerns raised about the public institution, which is also one of the Cape Fear region’s largest employers.

She replied simply, “We conduct business in our public meeting which is January 30th.”

We asked David if we could speak with her sooner, or if the board might hold a special meeting since employees at the college tell us they are “walking on eggshells” and fear imminent retaliation against anyone suspected of voicing concerns about Morton’s leadership. Employees have explained their communication is monitored, and that Morton has previously asked them to analyze handwriting samples in an attempt to pinpoint who has written letters of complaint to the board. Morton flatly denies that allegation and sent us a four-page response to other claims of mismanagement.

David declined our interview request.

“The Board will meet January 30, as scheduled," she wrote in a text message. "I am not going to speak on camera or in any format until the Board members, collectively, have an opportunity to discuss. Right now, we have known complaints from two former employees who appeared on camera with your station. Their concerns will be considered. We do have one anonymous letter. If any employee has a concern about the President, the Faculty and Staff Handbook provides for those concerns to be presented to the Board. Please direct any employees you are speaking with to follow the procedure.”

We called Barfield weeks ago to ask about the email Sharon Smith sent to him expressing her concerns. He responded that he’d received one or two letters that he had asked the board chair to look into. It is unclear why David apparently did not receive the email in question. WECT has since forwarded David and several other CFCC board members a copy of Smith’s original email to Barfield, which Smith had signed with her personal contact information in case anyone on the board needed to speak with her. Smith said she sent a nearly identical copy to board member Paula Sewell on the same day, October 31.

In recent weeks, WECT has spoken to more than two dozen current and former employees of CFCC who voiced similar concerns to Smith’s about Morton. Several said they feared for their jobs if they went to the board with those concerns.

Smith told us that in the past when people complained to the board, the board has taken those complaints straight to Morton and Michelle Lee to deal with. Smith says she witnessed retaliation against employees who raised questions, and she has seen good people pushed out of their jobs with the college for reasons that had nothing to do with job performance.

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