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A closer look at the emails, legal-spending records around the removal of CFCC Trustee Ray Funderburk

The CFCC Board of Trustees holds their bi-monthly meetings at Union Station.
The CFCC Board of Trustees holds their bi-monthly meetings at Union Station.

Records show spikes in spending on legal services around certain events. Email records also show that one of the 'smoking guns' used against Funderburk is less conclusive than the definitive way it was presented during the removal hearing last month.

It’s been a month and a half since Ray Funderburk was removed from his seat on the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees.

In an effort to shed more light on the process of Funderburk's removal, WHQR requested emails and texts from Board Chair Bill Cherry, Vice-Chair Jason McLeod — who conducted the college's investigation of Funderburk — as well as top officials like President Jim Morton and the executive director of his office, Michelle Lee.

The only emails produced concerning Funderburk’s removal were a public notice sent by Lee notifying the board about the hearing — and an email, sent after Funderburk's removal, informing New Hanover County School Board Chair Board Pete Wildeboer that Funderburk’s trustee position was now vacant.

Christina Hallingse, director of CFCC’s Media Relations, said there were no other text messages or emails responsive to that request. She also noted that, while Cherry and Lee do not have CFCC accounts, they were asked to turn over any responsive emails and reported that they did not have any.

It's worth noting that there is nothing in public records law that prevents public officials from discussing issues by phone, thus leaving no documentation. In fact, that's one of several ways a PR firm hired by the college in 2015, advised officials to avoid media scrutiny — and state public records law, according to reporting from WECT.

Other emails requested by WHQR did help shed additional light on Funderburk's removal.

McLeod's smoking gun

One of the allegations used to remove Funderburk was that he had pressured a CFCC instructor to change the grade of a student — a charge Funderburk forcefully denied. McLeod admitted during Funderburk’s hearing that Funderburk never “[came] right out and ask[ed] for a grade change," but claimed that was the subtext of Funderburk's conversation with the instructor.

The instructor was not named during the removal hearing. However, WHQR has confirmed it was Alvin Coleman, a geology instructor.

During his investigation, McLeod requested a meeting with Coleman. In an email dated February 22, before the March 8 removal hearing, Coleman told Brandon Gutherie, CFCC's Vice President of Academic Affairs, that he had asked his department chair, Bradley Parnell, to join the meeting with McLeod.

The following day, Coleman sent an email to Gutherie recounting his meeting with McLeod, in that McLeod told him he “needed to speak with [him] alone one-on-one.” Coleman asked why, and McLeod informed him it was “confidential,” even though an email shows that on February 9, Coleman informed Gutherie that he, along with Parnell, would be drafting a statement on his discussion with Funderburk.

Coleman said he asked McLeod a second time if Parnell could be present to which McLeod responded, “[I] only want to speak with you," and that McLeod could speak with Parnell separately.

Coleman wrote the following to Gutherie about his one-on-one interview with McLeod:

I told my story of everything that has happened until mid-February and my interactions with Mr. Funderburk during lunch. I stated our conversation was only about 15 minutes, definitely no longer than 20 minutes and that Jessica Snoberger was also present. I said that Mr. Funderburk only wanted to know about orientation for online students, any tutorials for students ... basically what procedures were in place for those students. I told him (Mr. McLeod) that I instructed students how to complete assignments online and the questions he was asking (Mr. Funderburk) were better answered by the high school liaisons, directors, or even the dean.

Alvin Coleman's email to Gutherie describing his interview with McLeod.
Alvin Coleman's email to Gutherie describing his interview with McLeod.

Coleman said that the conversation with Funderburk wasn’t “threatening or intimidating” — which was how McLeod characterized it later. But Coleman did say, the conversation was “confusing” and it “dumbfounded” him. And that “later [he] received an email from a coach stating he asked Mr. Funderburk to speak on his behalf.”

That coach was Benjamin Stroehl. His student's poor grades at CFCC meant they would not be able to play high school sports. His February 2 email to Coleman was McLeod's 'smoking gun' throughout the removal hearing.

This is a portion of the coach's email to Alvin Coleman. This section shows the "he" confusion.
This is a portion of the coach's email to Alvin Coleman. This section shows the "he" confusion.

Specifically, McLeod focused on the lines "[the student] needs some assistance to keep his eligibility intact. Mr. Funderburk was very hopeful that he could make this happen," which he interpreted as Stroehl saying Funderburk thought he could get Coleman to change the grade.

That interpretation implies that the 'he' in that sentence refers to Funderburk.

Both Stoehl, who wrote the email, and Funderburk disputed that, both saying the sentence meant they were, in essence, hopeful the student could pull up their own grade. (Stroehl actually showed up in person to testify that the line in his email did not mean Funderburk wanted a grade change for the student, and in general testified that Funderburk would never interfere with a grade.)

It's worth noting that, in order to protect the student's identity, the college redacted their name and all pronouns referring to the student throughout most of the letter. The unredacted pronouns (i.e. "he") referred to Funderburk.

This helped McLeod make his case to trustees during the removal hearing, since if "he" in his smoking-gun excerpt, referred to the student, it should have been redacted.

Except that, in the sentence preceding McLeod's smoking gun, the pronoun "his" clearly refers to the student — no one else's eligibility was in question — but "his" is not redacted.

Thus, in the passage cited by McLeod — "[the student] needs some assistance to keep his eligibility intact. Mr. Funderburk was very hopeful that he could make this happen" — it's possible to see two interpretations.

This takes the wind out of McLeod's assertion, and — at the very least — leaves it unclear who the "he" refers to. Combine that with the fact that the author of the email, Stroehl, refuted McLeod's interpretation of the line, and McLeod's claim seems fairly shaky.

No more itemized bills

WHQR requested CFCC’s recent legal bills in order to find out whether there were any spikes in fees associated with Funderburk’s removal.

Legal spending by government agencies is a public record, but there has historically been some debate about how detailed records of that spending should be.

Back in 2020, after WECT’s story first broke about CFCC’s alleged toxic work environment, WECT requested the college’s legal fees from Ward and Smith, the college's law firm. A struggle ensued, and CFCC refused to provide itemized bills. But eventually, Port City Daily received itemized billing records, albeit in a heavily-redacted document from the college.

This is an example of a redacted itemized bill from Ward and Smith.
CFCC/Ward and Smith
This is an example of a redacted itemized bill from Ward and Smith.

But it now appears the law firm no longer itemizes their bills to the college. CFCC didn't respond to questions about why this is no longer done. Hallingse responded only, “the invoices that I shared with you are what CFCC receives from Ward & Smith. NCGS 132 does not request a public agency to ‘create or compile a record that does not currently exist.’"

Amanda Martin of Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic said, "In my experience, it is unusual for a law firm not to itemize its invoice[s], though it likely is more common for invoices not to be itemized if a law firm is working on a retainer basis."

This is what Ward and Smith's legal bills look like now.
CFCC/Ward and Smith
This is what Ward and Smith's legal bills look like now.

Correlations to legal spending

Based on the invoices provided by CFCC, the college has spent a total of $81,076 over the last 18 months, ending in February. (Hallingse said the college hasn’t yet been billed for legal services for the month of March.)

CFCC legal fees over the past 18 months.
CFCC/Ward and Smith
CFCC legal fees over the past 18 months.

The most expensive monthly invoices were for services provided in February 2023 ($8,992), November 2022 ($8,353), and May 2022 ($8,294). For the invoices for the months of June 2021 through August 2021, records show the college was behind on legal bills from the prior months.

Since Ward and Smith no longer provide itemized legal bills to CFCC, it’s difficult to tell what legal services were being provided. However, the spending does correlate with several recent events at CFCC.

For example, in February, college administrators and trustees were receiving advice regarding Funderburk’s investigation.

In November, WHQR covered Trustee Robby Collins taking the seat of former Trustee Jimmy Hopkins and the fallout from Funderburk’s statements on the legally questionable removal of Hopkins.

In May, those legal fees coincided with WHQR’s coverage of the results of the college's faculty and staff climate survey and Morton’s contract extension.

After Funderburk’s removal, he went on record to say that Cherry told him he had cost the money for his public statements, those started in July ($2,452) and August ($5,110) when he was the sole dissenting vote on the significant raise the trustees gave Morton, bringing Morton to one of the highest paid presidents in the community college system at $322,584.

During this time, the college successfully blocked the release of its “salary survey” to WECT. That survey is what trustees said they looked at before deciding on Morton’s large salary increase. Eventually, the news outlet did receive a salary list of all community college presidents around the state after State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who sits on the state community college board, procured the list.

At the time, Cherry claimed that their “salary survey” was confidential because it had been reviewed in a closed session. Duke University's Amanda Martin disagreed, telling WECT there was no law that would make that a document confidential just because it was discussed or disseminated behind closed doors.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR