Former ECU chancellor Cecil Staton, who stepped down a year ago after an embattled tenure, has filed a defamation suit against the UNC System, the former chairman of its governing body and a Greenville attorney and his investigative company.
Staton, who served as East Carolina University’s chancellor from July 2016 to May 2019, filed suit on June 12 in Orange County, according to court documents that began circulating late last week. The suit alleges that former UNC Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith and the University of North Carolina system violated the non-disparagement provision of his separation agreement.
Staton also alleges that Smith, attorney Peter Romary, and Romary’s company, Qverity, defamed him by creating and distributing a “dossier” that prevented him from getting a job at a Texas university.
Staton is seeking multiple claims of relief against all defendants “in an amount in excess of $25,000,” along with punitive damages against Smith, Romary and QVerity, attorney fees, interest and “that he be granted further relief as the court deems just and proper.”
The suit also states Staton seeks “to deter future abuses of the public trust and the illicit wielding of government sponsored power.”
He is seeking a jury trial.
Staton is represented by Winston-Salem attorney Robert M. Elliot, who specializes in employment law, disability claims, civil rights work, personal injury claims, and commercial and business issues.
The Daily Reflector obtained copies of the lawsuit Friday night from multiple sources.
“I had absolutely nothing to do or any knowledge of the dossier done on Cecil. I wasn’t aware of it in any shape, form or fashion. Further, any process that gets the facts out, I’ll support. If this is the process that gets the facts out I fully absolutely support it,” Smith said Saturday. He said he doesn’t know who wrote the document.
In the 25-page lawsuit, Staton outlines what he calls Smith’s “obsession” to undermine him in the ECU community and within the UNC system. An additional 12 pages are included as exhibits to show the dossier and a memorandum that questioned Staton’s administrative abilities.
The suit claims UNC leaders never tried to “dissuade or prevent” Smith’s actions and that Romary and his company were hired to “investigate and attack defendant Smith’s perceived enemies within UNC.”
The lawsuit said troubles started in September 2016 when Smith asked Staton to guarantee that ECU would lease of hundreds of beds in the North Campus Crossing apartment complex, now called Paramount 3800. Smith wanted the university to require sophomores to live there, the lawsuit said. Smith would then buy the buildings.
Smith claimed he had “clearance” from the UNC Office of Legal Counsel for the deal, a statement that was “rejected and denied by UNC given the ethical and legal issues surrounding the scheme,” the lawsuit states. It states Staton’s rejection of the deal resulted in Smith publicly and privately criticizing Staton’s leadership and taking other actions to undermine him.
“That’s not true in any shape, form or fashion,” Smith said. A local developer who was on the ECU Board of Trustees at the time talked to Staton about the proposal, he said.
“My only concern was the actual performance of ECU, that’s it and only it. That’s been my only concern,” Smith said. “I think getting the facts out is a great thing.”
Staton also said Smith was behind the production of a written statement called “Was the Hire of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton an Act of Gross Negligence,” which Staton calls the “dossier.”
The anonymous document was widely circulated during Staton’s tenure at ECU. The Daily Reflector was among media outlets that received copies. The newspaper did not publish the document.
The lawsuit said the dossier was, “upon information and belief, prepared, published and disseminated by defendant Smith, and/or through the combined efforts of defendants Smith and Romary.”
The suit goes on to state that Romary’s business, QVerity, advertises its work in information collection and “personnel screening and vetting.”
The suit states Romary was not only hired by Smith but by other members of the UNC Board of Governors to investigate candidates and open positions at other UNC System schools.
Staton went on to say that an evaluation of his performance carried out in 2018 was “unprecedented, and inconsistent with the policies and practices of defendant UNC.”
The suit claims the report stated Staton “is perceived as a visionary leader that is hard-working and strategically focused.” However, the report also notes that some issues that needed to be resolved were complicated by Staton’s actions.
The report states that Smith was appointed to the Board of Governors because “he had contributed to and raised substantial funds for the political campaigns of top legislators.” It stated Smith had no academic experience and “was unqualified for the appointment to the UNC-BOG.”
It goes on to say that Smith retaliated against Staton’s leadership by pressuring ECU to fire its chief financial officer, who also rejected the North Campus Crossing deal, rescinding his pledge of a $1 million to the football stadium renovation project, opposed the plan to unify ECU Physicians with Vidant Health’s medical practices, interfered with ECU hiring decisions and publicly criticized Staton.
The lawsuit states that Romary “prepared and published an anonymous attack” on the person selected director of ECU Director of Alumni Affairs, a job Romary’s wife had sought.
The suite claims Romary used a pseudonym of John Q. Public to make allegations against Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs, the person responsible for ending his employment with the university. The suit states the allegations were made to undermine her possible selection as interim chancellor.
The suit also states that Romary, as John Q. Public, wrote interim UNC System President William Roper regarding the ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach’s fitness.
Eventually photographs and video of Gerlach drinking and interacting with students at several downtown clubs and a restaurant, along with video of him apparently driving away from the downtown area during that period, resulted in Gerlach stepping down from his post.
Smith eventually resigned from the chairmanship of the Board of Governors on Nov 4, 2019, and from the board on Feb. 1.
The suit states that after Staton left ECU he applied for the presidency at Steven F. Austin State University in Texas on or about April 15, 2019.
In late May, he was invited to interview at the university and was top he was a top candidate, according to the suit.
After he interviewed with the school’s search committee, he learned members of that board had received a memorandum from the “UNC System Board of Governor (sic)” that questioned Staton’s integrity.
Staton was asked to withdraw his name from consideration, which he did.
Later that year Staton accepted the position of president/CEO of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.