WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - They are public records WECT has been requesting from Cape Fear Community College for five months. After repeatedly refusing to provide itemized bills for the college’s legal expenses, insisting the bills from their attorney were protected by attorney-client privilege, CFCC changed course and gave those documents to WECT at the end of June.
But it took a news story on their refusal to comply and hiring an attorney to contact the college on the station’s behalf, demanding the document release under public records law.
The documents WECT received are so heavily redacted it is impossible to determine what the college was consulting the attorney about.
Notably, there are no active lawsuits on file at the state or federal level currently in process involving CFCC that would help explain a recent spike in attorneys’ fees at the college.
Reason for spike in legal fees?
WECT requested information about the college’s legal expenses after getting a tip that CFCC President Jim Morton and his executive assistant had been spending an exorbitant amount of time consulting with the school’s attorney, Ward & Smith, for guidance responding to a news story about them that aired in January.
That story featured the outgoing director of Human Resources, Sharon Smith, and the outgoing IT Director, Kumar Lakhavani, who both said Morton had created a toxic culture at the community college in his short term as president.
They accused Morton of playing favorites with college faculty and staff, promoting friends and allies, and pushing out anyone who challenged his vision for the college. In addition to those on-the-record sources, more than 30 other employees and former employees contacted WECT on background to share similar concerns about Morton’s leadership.
Morton has repeatedly refuted these claims, and provided WECT a four-page statement addressing those concerns and others.
While college leadership initially refused to comply with our request for itemized legal bills, or even provide an explanation of what they were paying their attorneys for, on February 12, CFCC did disclose the grand total they claimed to have spent with Ward and Smith, broken down by month.
According to the numbers CFCC provided, their attorney’s fees increased nearly ten-fold in January, the month when our story about Morton broke.
Redacted invoices, different numbers
In June, when they finally provided the itemized (but heavily redacted) invoices to us, the actual grand total was significantly higher than the College indicated to us in February.
The spreadsheet CFCC emailed to WECT February 12 said the school paid $19,120.50 for legal services provided in January 2020. By WECT’s calculations, using the itemized statements from Ward and Smith, the actual cost of legal services provided to CFCC in January was $46,013.50.
To be fair, Ward and Smith’s bill for more than half of that did not go out to CFFC until after the college had initially disclosed their legal fees to WECT, but the college gave no indication that the amount for January only included partial expenses incurred during the first half of the month.
The $46,013.50 that CFCC actually spent during the month of January 2020 is nearly twice the amount they spent on legal fees for the entire year before. Moreover, 85% of the “Description of Services” on the bills for January are completely redacted.
The attorney hired by WECT expressed concern about the legal basis for the redactions. Additionally, Amanda Martin, General Counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, has previously voiced concern about the bills being withheld from us, and the importance of transparency from public institutions.
“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 first invoice detailing legal expenses for the college redacts every single line item for the month of January. The February invoice, which covers January legal expenses incurred after January 15, has seven charges that are not redacted.
The non-redacted items primarily reference preparation for the January board meeting, when the CFCC Board of Trustees would be considering the allegations raised against Morton by the outgoing college executives.
A January 30 line item on the bill from Ward and Smith notes, “[C]orrespondence with [Board of Trustees Chair] A[nn] David re audience control.” A January 22 charge says, “Discussion with M[ichelle] Lee re accreditation issues, strategy for next board meeting, and planned approach with staff.”
Legal basis for release of invoices
The courts have taken a look at this 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.
If CFCC was indeed consulting with its attorneys about how best to respond to the media, as a tipster previously indicated to WECT, that could also be problematic.
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.
WECT will continue to push for a more transparent account of how public money is being spent at Cape Fear Community College, despite the attempts to conceal these public records thus far.