WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The amount of money Cape Fear Community College is spending on legal fees skyrocketed in recent months. But CFCC has repeatedly refused to disclose itemized bills, or even to explain the surge in expenses, saying the bills are protected by attorney-client privilege. Public records law experts say otherwise.
You may remember Cape Fear Community College being in the news back in January. The outgoing Human Resources director and Information Technology director came forward publicly to express concerns about poor management at the highest levels of the college. In the days following that report, dozens of other current and former CFCC employees reached out to WECT with similar stories of a hostile work environment. They said President Jim Morton was running the college like a police state and retaliating against perceived opponents, a claim Morton staunchly denied.
After that story broke, we also got a tip that President Morton and his administrative assistant, Michelle Lee, began making frequent trips to the college’s attorney right as soon as we started asking questions for our January article. According to the employee who contacted WECT, Morton and Lee were seeking a lawyer’s advice on how to respond. So WECT submitted a public records request for the amount of public money CFCC had spent on legal fees, and noticed a significant spike in their monthly expenses after a WECT reporter started asking questions.
Ward & Smith has served as CFCC’s legal counsel for at least five years. Attorneys there draft contracts, defend the college if it gets sued, and provide general legal advice as issues arise. In 2019, the college spent about $2,100 a month on average for Ward & Smith’s legal fees.
But in January, the same month news broke that high-level executives were questioning Morton’s leadership, CFCC’s legal expenses topped $19,000. Nearly ten times higher than average. The following month, when fallout from the story continued after the college board met to discuss concerns about Morton, legal expenses soared to $27,000.
WECT asked the college for an itemized bill to explain the sudden spike in spending, but they refused to comply with the request, citing attorney-client privilege.
Attorney Amanda Martin is general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association and disagrees with CFCC’s position. She says – and the North Carolina School of Government agrees – that itemized invoices from attorneys are financial records, not privileged communication.
“Unless something extraordinary has happened, the invoices of law firms or attorneys are public record,” Martin explained of the legal bills to a public institution. “The public should be privy to as much information as they possibly can. With regard to how public, governmental bodies are exercising their governmental authority and responsibilities, and in particular spending public money.”
The courts have taken a look at this very issue after a newspaper sued the Town of Kitty Hawk years ago when they refused to provide itemized bills to explain their own skyrocketing legal expenses.
The court ruled that itemized bills from the attorneys are public record, and ordered the Town to release them to the paper.
WECT asked CFCC if they were being sued, which could potentially explain the significantly higher bills. They did not answer that question and simply reiterated that the documents being sought were protected under attorney-client privilege.
CFCC’s repeated refusal to share or simply explain their legal bills heightens concerns that they may have indeed been paying lawyers to help with spin control, perhaps even drafting a four-page response Morton sent in January in response to questions about his leadership. Notably, the document refers to Morton in the third person, giving the impression that at the very least, he didn’t write it. The college won’t provide who did.
Another reason the itemized bills could be significant: in 2015, when the college was reeling from bad press, a former president hired a PR firm to help them improve their messaging. The state auditor later found that the $7,500 the college spent at the time was not an appropriate use of public money, and instead considered it a “personal expenditure" to help the president’s image, rather than to advance the mission of the college.
“I think that the best way to manage public perception is to manage government well. Not to after-the-fact try to bring in people to craft spin. In this case, that you are looking at, if that’s why the law firm has been hired I think it’s even more suspect to hire lawyers to do that,” Martin added when asked about the possibility that attorneys had been paid to help manage our media request.
One question the college has responded to: whether or not they would be hiring an outside firm to conduct a climate survey of faculty and staff, as the state community college system president suggested after serious concerns were raised about a hostile work environment at Cape Fear Community College.
CFCC says they have no plans to conduct the survey the state recommended.