Education

Report finds ECU ex-official Gerlach drank heavily; no evidence of sexual misconduct

A UNC System investigation into the former interim chancellor at East Carolina University determined that while he did go drinking at several Greenville bars, allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior and comments are “largely false.”

The results of the investigation into interim chancellor Dan Gerlach were released late Friday afternoon. Gerlach suddenly resigned from the post last month, after video footage showed he went out drinking at popular student bars near the ECU campus on Sept. 25 and then later drove off in a car.

The UNC System hired an outside law firm, Womble Bond Dickinson, to investigate what happened.

Gerlach did not respond to The News & Observer’s requests for comment Friday night.

Among the findings of the investigation:

  • Gerlach “probably consumed” between seven and 10 alcoholic drinks at four different spots over about six hours.

  • He drove himself to his home after 2 a.m. Sept. 26.

  • Anonymous emails from someone calling themselves “John Q. Public” were sent to UNC and ECU leaders as well as to members of the media. While the emails claimed Gerlach acted inappropriately with women at the Club 519 bar, the investigation “does not support these allegations,” according to the report, which “concludes that the specific allegations contained in the Emails are largely false.”

  • No evidence was found that Gerlach purchased alcohol for underage students, as the emails alleged.

  • Most witnesses interviewed said Gerlach did not appear to be drunk that night. One however, described him as “impaired.” The report noted that Gerlach is a very early riser and may have been up for 22 hours by the time he left in his car.

Where did the photos come from?

The report offers an elaborate timeline of how the photos, videos and allegations about Gerlach’s activities on Sept. 25 were distributed anonymously to media outlets, including The News & Observer, and others.

On Sept. 29, TV stations, newspapers and ECU and UNC system leaders received nine photos and three videos from johnqpublicatecu@gmail.com. The report says ECU and UNC leaders had received previous emails from John Q. Public, who “attempts to portray himself or herself as an employee and identifies with faculty, staff and administration.”

Although the investigators tried to use forensic analysis to find John Q. Public’s identity, they were unable to do so, the report says. The email appears to be shut down, according to the report.

The report doesn’t name the photographer who shot the photos of Gerlach in the bars, but says he works part-time at a Greenville restaurant. It says Matthew Davenport, a Greenville lawyer and ECU adjunct professor, was shown the photos by the photographer. Davenport then told his friend Peter Romary, a Hillsborough lawyer, about them, according to the report.

Gerlach’s resignation

Gerlach was placed on administrative leave in September, days after the photos and videos showed him drinking alcohol with college-age young adults, on the dance floor with female patrons, and putting his arms around a young woman at the bar that night.

Gerlach defended his actions in an official statement and on a local radio show, saying he was simply trying to connect with students. He also said that while it was bad judgment, he was still pursuing the permanent job.

But a month later, Gerlach resigned.

The announcement came the day after additional footage from city surveillance cameras was released, showing Gerlach getting into a car and driving away about 2 a.m. the following morning. The videos were taken around the downtown Greenville area, including the exterior of Sup Dogs and Club 519.

In a written statement after his resignation, Gerlach said: “Make no mistake: the responsibility is mine.”

“It is not the press, not the University or system leadership, and not anyone else who put me in this situation,” he said. “It was I who made the choices that led to this action. There is no one to hold accountable for the situation except me.”

Involvement of Romary

Romary, the Hillsborough lawyer, requested the Greenville surveillance footage on Oct. 24 from the Pitt County Superior Court on behalf of the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police. He had been hired by the FOP’s Greenville chapter.

gerlachkey.jpg
A frame from a City of Greenville street camera shows Dan Gerlach getting into a car. He drove away in the car a few seconds later. The video is timestamped 2:11 a.m. Sept. 26, 2019. City of Greenville camera

Romary said he was working on behalf of local law enforcement officers in Greenville who were upset about Gerlach’s claims that off-duty cops had been drinking with him that night.

But in a timeline released Friday by the UNC System, several conflicting statements about who Romary are mentioned:

On Oct. 7, Romary messaged a Greenville police lieutenant saying he had been asked by “some folks at UNC System” to get the street camera footage.

On Oct. 12, Romary told the Greenville lieutenant he had “been (quietly) retained by some (Board of Governors) folks to look behind” the Womble Bond Dickinson firm in its investigation.

On Oct. 15, Romary emails Greenville’s city attorney saying he has “been retained by some private parties, including a couple of members of the ECU Trustees and UNC Board of Governors.”

The report notes that Romary’s comments to the Womble Bond Dickinson investigators used “language very similar” to the anonymous emailer.

This isn’t the first time Romary has been involved in investigating actions of a potential chancellor for a UNC System university. Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer asked Romary to look into a leading candidate at Western Carolina University that blew up the search last year. That candidate abruptly dropped out of the running and the search resumed.

In an interview with The News & Observer on Friday night, Romary denied being the anonymous emailer and said the investigators “want to paint me as the bad guy.”

“If I hadn’t got those videotapes, there’s no way in hell (UNC System investigators) would’ve gotten them,” Romary said. “And nobody would’ve ever known.”

Romary also said “the investigators had no idea what they were doing.”

“I think they wanted to sweep this under the rug,” he said..

Romary said he acted initially to get information for individuals who happened to be on the UNC Board of Governors and the ECU Board of Trustees. He said he sought to see if “tapes could be obtained and to get to the truth of the matter.”

Tom Fetzer was one of those people, he said.

Board members’ involvement

The report says investigators asked Fetzer to provide all documents related to Gerlach and the events of Sept. 25. Though the report says Fetzer gave investigators 15 emails, none related to the incident. Fetzer provided no other information, the report says.

Investigators said they asked to speak with UNC Board of Governors member and former board chairman Harry Smith. They said Smith called the law firm’s investigation “bungled,” and declined to meet with them.

“He declined to provide his phone for imaging, or provide text messages,” the report says.

Smith, reached by phone Friday night, said he had watched the drama involving Gerlach unfold “on social media along with everybody else.” While he received a number of calls about the photos and allegations that were circulating online, Smith said, “I didn’t have any involvement in the Gerlach thing — in no way, shape, form or fashion. My only involvement was getting incoming phone calls and forwarding them to the corporate office,” by which he said he meant the UNC General Administration.

Smith said he was not involved in asking for videos from that night. He said he already had been considering stepping down from the board, but that the events involving Gerlach became the deciding factor. He’ll leave the board in February.

Smith said he supported Gerlach for the chancellor job at ECU.

“Dan is a really, really good guy,” Smith said, “and he was doing a spectacular job. We had worked so hard and come so far. We finally had things going in the right direction at ECU.

“I was just dumbfounded by this whole thing. It was really just disappointing. I was a supporter of Dan’s, and he’s still a good friend.”

Smith said he would have supported keeping Gerlach in the chancellor’s job except for one thing: the allegation that he drove his car when he may have been impaired.

“I know that was a big deal for everybody I talked to on the board,” Smith said. “Did he drink and drive? The rest of it, to me, I could have gotten past.”

Smith said he has told Gerlach that if he ever wants it, he can have a job in the private sector with one of Smith’s companies.

Smith, an ECU graduate and Greenville resident, said he has no interest in the ECU chancellor’s job. He may eventually be open to returning to the UNC Board of Governors, he said. Members of the Board of Governors are appointed by the state legislature.

Of the investigation’s findings that Fetzer may have overreached his authority as a board member by asking an outside attorney to seek out information on Gerlach’s behavior that night, Smith said he felt Fetzer could have been more forthcoming.

“My only issue with Tom would have been for him to take accountability right out of the gate so others would not have gotten drug into it,” Smith said. “He should have raised his hand right away and said, ‘I did it, and this is why I did it.’

“Otherwise,” Smith said, “you get conspiracy theorists.”

Fetzer did not return a phone message from The News & Observer on Friday night.

Who will be ECU’s new chancellor?

ECU provost Ron Mitchelson was named the new interim chancellor, a role he’s been in since Gerlach was placed on leave in September.

Mitchelson has been provost and senior vice chancellor of academic affairs at ECU since 2015. He first came to the university in 1999 as a professor and chair of the Department of Geography. He was also a faculty member and administrator at the University of Georgia and at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

Mitchelson_Ron-1166.jpg
Ron Mitchelson was named the new interim chancellor at East Carolina University after Dan Gerlach suddenly resigned. UNC System

Mitchelson’s academic background is a stark difference to Gerlach’s.

Gerlach had no experience running a university, but he did know how to run a successful business. Before ECU, Gerlach was the president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit focused on increasing economic opportunity in North Carolina’s rural and tobacco-dependent communities, and served as a budget and financial adviser to former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.

Gerlach started the job in May, replacing former chancellor Cecil Staton, and focused on improving ECU’s financial condition during his 5-month tenure.

His first challenge was to address the university’s $16 million budget cut caused by decreasing enrollment and he reportedly stabilized the finances.

When Gerlach was appointed as ECU’s interim chancellor, the search for a permanent leader was not established. And Gerlach made it clear throughout his time in Greenville that he was interested in the gig.

ECU now says it plans to announce a search committee and a timeline at the next ECU Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 21-22.

Mitchelson will serve as interim until the UNC Board of Governors completes its search for the next permanent chancellor of ECU.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
Support my work with a digital subscription
SUBSCRIBE TODAY
  Comments