The UNC Board of Governors referred a complaint involving an ECU trustee to the state ethics commission for review following a unanimous vote on Friday.
The complaint alleges ECU Board of Trustees member Max Joyner Jr., who is a former Greenville city councilman, purchased property in August because he knew negotiations were underway to develop nearby property owned by the university.
Along with the referral, the Board of Governors recommended ECU Board of Trustees Chairman Vern Davenport suspend Joyner from the board’s economic development committee, which he chairs, and the audit, risk management, compliance and ethics committee.
Davenport said he has forwarded governors’ request to ECU interim university counsel Paul H. Zigas to get his interpretation of what Joyner could or could not do based on the governance committee’s request.
“In talking with Max directly, the only thing Max is concerned about is what is in the best interest of ECU, so he will be fine with whatever action I take in that regard,” Davenport said.
During a conversation with governance committee chairman David Powers, Davenport said it would be precedent-setting to remove a trustee before the ethics commission takes action, but that it might be a good practice moving forward.
The original complaint was filed in January by Robert Moore, who was facing his own ethics complaint along with another trustee, Phil Lewis. Both men resigned before any formal action.
Moore alleges Joyner, working through a limited liability corporation, purchased property at 1211 S. Washington St. in early August while ECU was finalizing a development deal to develop property it owned nearby.
Moore goes on to say that the previous owner is “looking at his options in possible litigation against ECU as it relates to this transaction.”
A co-owner of the previous property, Keith Styron, said in an affidavit dated Feb. 3, that he asked Joyner in 2018 if he wanted the property and Joyner said no. In April 2019 Styron said a Realtor approached him about purchasing the property. Joyner then approached him in June.
Styron said he knew his land was near ECU property that had the potential to be developed. Styron said Joyner told him it would be 10 years before ECU developed the property. Styron said he sold the property, in part, because he wanted to pay off the mortgage.
Styron said he later learned Joyner was a member of the Board of Trustees.
“I want to know what role, if any, he had in working on the development of the ECU-owned property that is so close to the property he purchased from me,” Styron said in the affidavit.
Joyner, in a Feb. 24 letter to the UNC Board of Governors’ governance committee, said the complaint should be dismissed, calling it an attempt to distract from the complaints facing Moore and Lewis.
Joyner said in the letter he didn’t know the university was pursuing an agreement with Elliott Sidewalk LLC when he purchased property adjacent to ECU’s on Aug. 1. He didn’t learn about the discussion with Elliott Sidewalk until Nov. 12, he said.
ECU first advertised a request for proposals for the property in 2018, according to Board of Governors agenda material. Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Sara Thorndike had meetings and discussions about the warehouse district project that included Joyner and Lewis and sometimes Moore, between Aug. 20 and Oct. 24, according to the agenda material. She said the project was discussed generally and without reference to a particular developer.
Joyner said he has not violated any ethics policies. His business interests do not compete with the university’s interest and there is “simply no requirement that a real estate professional in Greenville or any other businessperson for that matter, stop conducting business in Greenville, North Carolina, after they become a Board of Trustees member.”
A July 10, 2019, letter from the State Ethics Commission evaluating Joyner’s statement of economic interest also was included in the agenda packet. All individuals appointed the university boards must complete the statement.
The letter stated that while “no actual conflict of interest” was found, there was a “potential for a conflict of interest” because of his ownership in two real estate companies. It said he “should exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should issues involving any of these entities or interests come before the Board for official action.”
There are no rules requiring a member of the Board of Trustees to disclose their position to a potential seller, Joyner’s letter said. University policy states trustees must bring “matters of concern, potential and real conflicts of interests” to the board chairman or chancellor.
Joyner first was appointed to the ECU Board of Trustees in 2013 and appointed to his second term in 2017. He will not be eligible for reappointment when his term ends in 2021.
Contacted Friday, Joyner said he has had no communications since submitting his response to Moore’s complaint and additional documentation. He declined to comment further.