Former East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton has filed a lawsuit against Greenville lawyer Peter Romary, his law firm QVerity and former chairman of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governors Harry Smith over alleged libelous statements.
The lawsuit surfaced on Saturday and revealed multiple alleged instances of defamation against Smith and Romary. These instances of defamation include a dossier written on Staton’s incompetence as chancellor at ECU, a memorandum sent from the UNC System Office and more.
Within the legal documents for Staton’s suit, Exhibit A included a letter addressed to Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas (SFASU) on June 12 2019. The letter was sent in regards to Staton’s eligibility for president, addressed from “UNC System Board of Governors (BOG).” Smith was chairman of the UNC BOG at the time.
“Mr. Cecil Staton (former ECU chancellor), called me last week and asked if he could use me as a regent reference for several positions of leadership he was seeking across the country… We mutually signed a separation agreement with Cecil that does not allow either party to publicly disparage the other, so I must maintain confidentiality,” the letter addressed to SFASU said.
The lawsuit said that Staton did not ask any member of the UNC-BOG to provide a reference for his SFASU position.
“Plaintiff did not contact any member of the UNC-BOG or within the UNC Administration to provide a reference for the SFASU position or any other position, plaintiff was interested in the position and made no statement to the contrary, and did not malign SFASU or its location in Texas; ECU was in good condition financially and otherwise when the plaintiff left his position, and he was never asked to resign by the UNC-BOG,” the lawsuit said.
The defamation charges purported by Staton said a vendetta between Smith and Staton arose when Staton rejected an “unethical business proposal” from Smith in September 2016. The referenced business proposal involved an offer from Smith to Staton, who was representing ECU.
The “financial scheme” would guarantee ECU a lease of hundreds of beds within an apartment complex known as North Campus Crossing, according to Staton’s lawsuit. Smith had proposed that ECU sophomores be required to live in the apartments he was offering, which were four miles from campus according to the lawsuit.
“Defendant Smith represented to plaintiff, as well as three trustees on the ECU-BOT, that he had ‘clearance’ from the UNC Office of Legal Counsel concerning the North Campus Crossing Scheme. Defendant Smith’s statement was untrue, and consequently, was rejected and denied by UNC given the ethical and legal issues surrounding the scheme,” the lawsuit said.
Smith allegedly wrote a libelous memorandum to the search committee of SFASU. Staton looked to become employed by SFASU, but withdrew his name after the memorandum was sent, according to the lawsuit.
Before the memorandum to SFASU was sent, the lawsuit documents said a libelous dossier was allegedly written and distributed by Smith and Romary.
Romary said Smith is on record saying he has never hired Romary for any work. In Staton’s lawsuit it said Staton believes Smith did hire Romary.
“Upon information and belief, defendant Romary was hired by and acted as an agent for defendant Smith at various times between 2016 and November, 2019 in order to investigate and attack defendant Smith’s perceived enemies within UNC,” the lawsuit documents said.
In his written statement, Romary said he did not write a dossier on Staton and has been informed that the person who did will allegedly go public with the information. Romary said in the statement he believes the person who wrote the dossier will say publicly that he and his law firm QVerity are not involved with the dossier.
In a written statement, Smith said he thinks it is widely known the dossier was put together by an ex-ECU professor, which he said he has never had any communication with.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in the dossier in any way; I had no knowledge that Cecil was in any job interviews ever, and further would never do anything to harm Cecil in any job endeavor and I wish him nothing but success… I have never disparaged Cecil,” Smith said in his statement.
In a written statement, Romary disputed claims in the legal documents that said Staton believed he was behind the anonymous email account John Q Public, which sent anonymous claims against ECU Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Virginia Hardy and former Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach.
“I am NOT JohnQPublic— the lawyer for the person who is (John Q Public) wrote an article that was published in ‘The Indy’ and said that they are the lawyer for JohnQPublic and confirmed it is not and has never been me,” Romary said in a written statement.
Triangle-based lawyer T. Greg Doucette said John Q. Public saw him for legal advice, in an article Doucette wrote referencing the Gerlach investigation of fall 2019. Romary and John Q Public were both mentioned throughout the Gerlach investigation. Romary referenced the May 2020 Indy article written by Doucette in his previous statement.
“When the Greenville Fraternal Order of Police hired Romary to get the footage, Tom Shanahan wrote a cease-and-desist letter that he promptly leaked to the media, as university leaders laughably insisted Romary ran an anonymous Gmail account ‘JohnQPublicAtECU.’ This was a lie, too: The actual John Q. Public came to me for legal advice,” Doucette said in the Indy Article.