UNC professor imprisoned in Argentina refiles legal challenge to reinstate his pay

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 3, 2013 

Professor Paul Frampton


— Much debate has swirled about whether a UNC-Chapel Hill physics professor can perform his teaching and research duties while under house arrest thousands of miles away in Argentina.

But one thing Paul Frampton has been able to do from afar is continue his legal fight for reinstatement of pay that university officials stopped about two months after his arrest in January 2012.

Frampton was convicted last year of drug smuggling in Argentina. Authorities say he was carrying a suitcase lined with cocaine. He contends that he was duped after traveling to South America for what he thought would be a meeting with an internationally known bikini model.

Last week, Chapel Hill lawyer Barry Nakell filed a petition in Orange County Superior Court for judicial review of UNC’s February 2012 decision to put Frampton on unpaid leave.

Frampton, a 69-year-old tenured professor who holds three degrees from Oxford University, contends that UNC has no legal authority to place him on leave without his request or consent. He argues that UNC has violated its procedures, and he holds up the findings of a Faculty Grievance Committee, much of which was filed under seal in the court documents, to bolster his contentions.

Frampton argues that he is owed back pay and benefits, as well as additional money for his suffering, attorney’s fees and court costs.

UNC officials declined to comment on the case. But in letters included with the Orange County court filing, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp said he had “no difficulty concluding that a professor incarcerated several thousand miles from Chapel Hill is unable to perform the duties of a member of the faculty.”

Thorp wrote in a letter dated Oct. 30, 2012, that Frampton’s supervisors began with the presumption that he was not guilty of the criminal charges and concluded that “it would be precipitous and unfair to take disciplinary action” against him until his case has made its way through the Argentinian courts.

“That decision did not require the university to continue to pay your salary under the circumstances presented,” Thorp said in the Oct. 30 letter to Frampton. “The university must be a good steward of public funds. We would violate the public trust if we paid you for work that you are not performing, and I will not agree to do so.”

UNC-CH trustees supported the chancellor’s decision in a closed-door session in March.

Frampton had sought a similar judicial review last year, but a judge dismissed his case, saying the professor had not exhausted the university’s appeals process. Nakell refiled the petition last week, saying the courts are the next step in the legal process for challenging the trustees’ decision.

‘Suitcase Full of Trouble’

The arrest of Frampton on Jan. 23, 2012, and his subsequent defense has been the subject of headlines in news publications around the world. In March, The New York Times published an article in its Sunday magazine titled “The Professor, the Bikini Model and the Suitcase Full of Trouble.”

At home and abroad, Frampton has been described by his supporters as a brilliant scientist who is hampered socially by a profound naivety about ordinary matters.

They say that Frampton had never shown an interest in drugs or drug-running. But some acknowledged that he had been known to go to great lengths to woo younger women. Frampton had gone to the Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires allegedly to meet Denise Milani, a model and former Miss Bikini World.

The New York Times described the November trial of Frampton and text messages that prosecutors held up as evidence to poke holes in the defense.

“On Jan. 22 at 9:46 a.m.,” the prosecutor said, “you wrote from Ezeiza airport to the person you understood to be Denise Milani: ‘Was worried only about sniffer dogs but more.’ ”

The prosecutor read other text messages from Frampton’s phone, including one at 9:52 a.m.: “Need to know if your loyalty is with the bad guy-agent & bolivian friends — or good guy, your husband?” And another at 9:56 a.m.: “SIRU” — the Hotel Siru, where they were planning to meet in Brussels — “IS AMBUSH.” 10:14 a.m.: “Your naivety is bad for me, us. This is millions. NO SIRU, OK?”

At 11:19 a.m., Frampton sent Milani an email, according to The New York Times: “This stuff is worth nothing in Bolivia, but $Ms in Europe. You meet me at the airport and we do not go near the hotel the ‘agent’ suggested. Stay at another hotel.” At 11:47 a.m., there was another text message: “Monday arrival changed. You must not tell the coca-goons.” At 12:16 p.m., he wrote: “WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME? AT THIS LAST MOMENT. WE DID NOT DECIDE HOW TO MEET TOMORROW IN BRUSSELS AND KEEP COCA & LIVES. AT SIRU WE MAY LOSE BOTH!!” At 1:06: “We may do cool 1,000,000.”

What defense said

Frampton reportedly told the judges the messages were jokes, that he had made up some 30 messages to amuse who he thought was the bikini model.

The defense showed airport footage of Frampton leaving the bag unattended in an attempt to persuade the judges that the naive scientist was the victim of international schemers.

But the prosecution offered a piece of paper to bolster their claims, a note where Frampton had written: “1 gram 200 dollars, 2,000 grams 400,000 dollars.”

The bag Frampton was carrying had about 2,000 grams of cocaine, law enforcement officers said. Frampton told The New York Times reporter later that he wrote that note after he was arrested.

On Nov. 19, Frampton was sentenced to four years and eight months for drug smuggling.

With credit for the time he has already spent in custody, Frampton is expected to be released in May 2014. Under Argentine law, a foreigner must serve half his sentence but can then be expelled from the country, and the penalty is then considered discharged.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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