WILMINGTON — After facing increasing pressure to release more detailed records of its recent spike in legal spending, Cape Fear Community College has provided heavily redacted invoices. Almost all recent line-items were blacked out — and the college still refuses to explain the increased costs.
The requests, including one from Port City Daily, followed an investigation by WECT’s Ann McAdams, concerning allegations of a ‘toxic workplace’ created by CFCC President Jim Morton. That investigation also found that CFCC’s legal spending had dramatically increased at the beginning of the year — around the same time WECT began to ask questions.
In late June, CFCC turned over itemized legal billing from Ward and Smith, P.A., the college’s outside legal counsel. The records show monthly billing went from between $1,000 to $3,000 per month in the last several months of 2019 to over $46,000 in January (although that bill was split into January and February invoices).
CFCC redacted roughly 87% of the invoices during the time of this spike (which appeared to begin in December and ran through February), totaling more roughly $50,000 in blacked-out ‘description of service’ items.
In the few remaining un-redacted items, CFCC engaged Ward and Smith to consider public records request for WECT and the James G. Martin Center (a conservative non-profit focused on “improving higher education”). Upward of $3,000 was spent discussing public records requests and CFCC’s responses, and “strategy development re: what records client should release.”
A Ward and Smith attorney also addressed some issues related to WECT’s reporting on the ‘toxic workplace’ allegations, including a seven-hour session for a “review of employee departure information in 2018 and 2019, comparison of departure information to benchmarks,” as well as “correspondence with [CFCC Board of Trustees Chair Ann M. David]” concerning “audience control.”
Why the spending surge? Why the redactions?
CFCC has declined to answer any questions about what pushed their confidential legal spending over $50,000 in just a few months.
Litigation, which can commonly involve legal bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, doesn’t seem to be the answer. While CFCC declined to respond to questions about whether it was being sued, databases for the United States federal court, as well as New Hanover County court records, show no recent cases with CFCC as defendant or plaintiff, and no local cases that might recently have moved to the state’s court of appeals.
Further, while the individual lawyers who billed hours for redacted reasons are still identified, most of them are skilled in a variety of areas, making it difficult to narrow their work down to a specific field — for example, contract negotiation or arbitration.
This leaves two unresolved questions: First, is the redaction of the legal bills allowable under North Carolina open records law, and, second, is the spending itself appropriate?
The North Carolina Press Association’s (NCPA) general counsel, Amanda Martin, has weighed in on the issue before, noting that except under ‘extraordinarily circumstances’ legal bills are a public financial record, not protected under attorney-client privilege. This precedent was established by the 2007 ruling on Womack Newspapers Inc. v. The Town of Kitty Hawk by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
In general, there are legal reasons — and sometimes requirements —- for redactions of public documents, however, the responsive government agency (e.g. CFCC) is required to cite the statute that allows or requires ‘blacking out’ certain information.
In the absence of an explanation, based on statute or otherwise, it not only remains unclear what CFCC paid Ward and Smith $50,000 to do — it remains unclear if it legal to conceal the purpose of this spending.
The second issue, on the appropriateness of the spending, is not a new one. As noted in WECT’s May article of CFCC’s unexplained legal bills, in 2015 the North Carolina Office of the State Auditor found that CFCC spent $7,500 to improve then-President Ted Spring’s image — which is not an allowable use of public funds.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001