Wainstein is 'in the thick of it' on UNC academic fraud probe

dkane@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2014 

  • New leaders for UNC board

    John Fennebresque, a Charlotte lawyer who is a partner and vice chairman of the McGuireWoods law firm, was elected Friday as the next chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. His two-year term begins July 1.

    A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University’s law school, Fennebresque first served on the board from 1995 to 1999, and rejoined the board in 2011.

    The board elected Asheville attorney Louis Bissette to serve as vice chairman, and Kinston pediatrician Joan Templeton Perry as board secretary.

    The board is the policy-making body for the 17-campus UNC system.

UNC-Chapel Hill wants to move forward, so Kenneth Wainstein first has to look back. In this case, way back.

Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor, told the UNC Board of Governors on Friday that his investigation of classes advertised as lectures that didn’t meet stretches back to the 1980s and has involved review of thousands of student records, including transcripts.

Wainstein shared no findings on his probe of the school’s academic scandal with members of the board, who had no questions for him after he finished. He told them he hopes to be done with his investigation “sometime by the fall.”

“At this point, we’re in the thick of it,” he said. “It’s impossible to give an exact time frame as to when this might be done.”

Wainstein said his team is making substantial progress, having interviewed more than 80 people. His investigation has gathered more than 1.5 million emails and other documents for review.

“I have to say we have made a lot of progress over the past four months,” Wainstein said.

Wainstein described a broad investigation that is looking at academic records that start in the 1980s. A prior investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin went back to 1994 because that was the limit of the university’s electronic data.

Wainstein said he is trying to determine how the no-show classes happened, who was involved and who knew about them. He is seeking to know whether students did legitimate work and had any involvement with faculty.

He said his investigation is trying to determine if anyone at the university’s athletic department encouraged athletes to take the classes and whether that was done to help keep them eligible to play sports.

“A very critical question, of course, is what was the role of athletics and the athletics department in relation to the classes,” Wainstein said.

Wainstein stressed that his investigation is independent of UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC system. No findings will be shared with UNC-Chapel Hill or UNC system officials until the work is completed, he said.

Cooperating witnesses

Wainstein, 52, is now a private attorney in Washington, D.C., after serving much of his career as a federal prosecutor and U.S. Justice Department administrator. He capped his federal career as Homeland Security adviser in the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency.

He was hired after a search that began in January, just as national media ramped up its coverage of the academic scandal. UNC system and university officials said they hired Wainstein to pick up where a state criminal investigation had left off. In December, that investigation led to a criminal fraud charge against former African studies department chairman Julius Nyang’oro.

Wainstein started his probe with two advantages prior ones lacked. Deborah Crowder, Nyang’oro’s longtime department manager, had agreed to cooperate, and Wainstein also had access to information from the criminal case.

Nyang’oro’s attorney, Bill Thomas of Durham, said earlier this month that his client is cooperating with Wainstein’s investigation. Thomas said Nyang’oro is innocent of the charge. The case has yet to be tried in court. Wainstein said Nyang’oro and Crowder have both been fully cooperative.

Chancellor Carol Folt and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham attended the meeting.

The scandal involves more than 200 confirmed or suspected lecture-style classes within the African studies department that never met. Athletes made up 45 percent of the enrollments, including some entire classes. They account for 5 percent of the student population.

There were also more than 500 suspected or confirmed unauthorized grade changes, and hundreds of accurately named independent studies that lacked adequate supervision.

McCants declines

Earlier this month, Rashad McCants, a star on the 2005 men’s basketball team that won the NCAA championship, told ESPN that his three years at UNC were filled with no-show classes and independent studies from the department. It was a “paper class system” that he said everyone in the athletic department knew about, including Coach Roy Williams.

The News & Observer also reported that at least five players on that team were heavily enrolled in the classes, according to data provided by whistleblower Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist for the athletes’ tutoring program.

Williams has denied any knowledge of impropriety, and several basketball players have since said their educations were legitimate.

Wainstein said at a short news conference after the meeting that McCants had declined to be interviewed in May. Wainstein said he hopes McCants will reconsider.

Wainstein is being paid $990 an hour. Three lawyers in his firm are being paid between $775 and $440 an hour. UNC officials say the money is not coming from taxpayer funds.

“This is an expensive, important investigation,” UNC system President Tom Ross said. “We have to let him be free to do it. And our job is to provide him with the cooperation he needs ... because, as I say, I think the Board of Governors and the president and the chancellor all believe it’s important to get to the bottom of this and bring it to a conclusion.”

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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