UNC physics professor jailed in Argentina wins back pay

Paul Frampton
Paul Frampton

Paul Frampton, the physics professor who was arrested abroad on drug charges after flying to Argentina for what he thought would be a liaison with a buxom bikini model, was an ocean away when news came Tuesday that he should get back pay for his time in prison.

The N.C. Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Tuesday stating that UNC-Chapel Hill violated its own policies when administrators placed Frampton on unpaid leave while he awaited trial on drug-trafficking charges in a prison in Argentina.

The unanimous three-judge panel sent the case back to Orange County Superior Court for a judge to determine the actual date that Frampton was fired from UNC in 2014. The court is then to calculate the pay owed to Frampton from then back to March 2012, when an administrator erroneously put the tenured professor on unpaid leave without Frampton’s permission.

UNC officials said Tuesday they were reviewing the decision and considering whether to ask the N.C. Supreme Court to review the decision.

Frampton, 71, lives in England, according to his stateside lawyer, Barry Nakell of Chapel Hill.

The past three years have seen Frampton portrayed as a brilliant theoretical particle physicist whose naivete navigating the real world caused him a world of problems.

Frampton was arrested in 2012 at the Buenos Aires airport when several kilos of cocaine were found in the lining of a suitcase he was carrying.

Frampton, the Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UNC at the time, quickly became fodder for international tabloids – transformed from superstar particle phenomenologist with three Oxford University degrees to accused smuggler.

Chancellor Carol Folt fired Frampton in May 2014 for misconduct and neglect of duty, according to a letter to Frampton that was sent in care of his Chapel Hill attorney.

But before that, university officials put him on unpaid leave from his $106,835 post, contending that his imprisonment abroad had made it impossible for him to carry out the duties of his job.

Frampton, who had access to prison phones and was able to contact reporters at The News & Observer and elsewhere, claimed to be advising students while he was incarcerated.

‘Unusual’ at every step

The case, from the professor’s claims of being duped by an online correspondent he thought was the former Miss Bikini World to his contentions of teaching from prison to his firing several years after his arrest, has been described as “unusual” at most every step.

“This case requires this Court to resolve an unusual and controversial dispute that tests the University’s responsibilities as an employer of tenured faculty and as a steward of public funds,” the appellate-judge panel stated in its Tuesday ruling. “After careful consideration and review of the record, we conclude that the University failed to properly apply its policies for the protection of tenured faculty.”

In November 2012, an Argentine court convicted Frampton of drug smuggling and sentenced him to four years and eight months in prison. Under Argentine law, he can be deported after serving half of that.

Frampton sought such release and agreed to never return to Argentina, according to his Chapel Hill attorney. Earlier this year, Frampton returned to England, where he was born and raised.

In February, a reporter at The Daily Mail interviewed Frampton at his new home in Oxford and wrote that the renowned physicist said he witnessed a brutal murder while serving time in Devota, an overcrowded, dilapidated Buenos Aires jail.

“The prison was a squalid place and we were treated like animals in a zoo,” Frampton told the Mail Online. “There were thousands of cockroaches crawling all over the floors and walls. We used a hole in the floor for a toilet and had just two showers between the 80 men on my wing. I can honestly say it nearly killed me. I believe I would have died if they had not let me out when they did.”

Frampton has said that he was duped over the Internet by someone claiming to be Denise Milani, a voluptuous and well-known bikini model. Instead of Milani, he was met by a man claiming to represent her and was given what he had thought was an empty suitcase to deliver. Investigators have never said whether the real Milani knew about the scheme or knew of Frampton.

A prosecutor presented the court with calculations of the drug’s value in Frampton’s handwriting and with texts and emails he apparently thought were going to Milani, sent the day before his arrest and referring repeatedly to drugs and the suitcase. According to a Buenos Aires newspaper, Clarin, the messages included: “I’m worried about the sniffer dogs,” “I’m looking after your special little suitcase” and “In Bolivia, this is worth nothing, in Europe it’s worth millions.”

Frampton said in a 2012 telephone interview that he had written the note and made the quick calculations after the drugs were found. He claimed he was waiting for the police to finish their work when he began wondering about the value of the cocaine. The emails and texts, he said, were jokes made when he was sleep deprived.

As his case played out in Argentina, Frampton quickly became an enduring embarrassment for the UNC administration, thanks to articles about him in everything from The New York Times Magazine to British tabloids. He also became something of a test case for tenure protection.

Typically, personal leave is something an employee has to request. But Frampton received a letter in prison from the UNC provost at the time, informing the professor that his pay was being cut off on the thought that he would be unable to carry out his duties from a prison in Argentina.

Frampton countered that he was able to perform enough of his normal duties, including doing independent research, writing papers and advising students by phone, to earn his pay.

Almost 75 academics, including several internationally known physicists and dozens of UNC faculty members, signed an open letter condemning the way the pay had been stopped. Some said that while Frampton might be an unsympathetic figure, the university was setting a dangerous precedent that could be used as a back-door method to fire tenured faculty. Frampton tried to get Orange County courts to reverse the university’s decision but lost until this week.

Book in the works

The appellate judges said UNC incorrectly put Frampton on unpaid leave instead of pursuing disciplinary action first. The trial court is ordered to determine the precise firing date of Frampton and then calculate a monetary damage amount based on pay and benefits due from March 1, 2012, when his salary and benefits were frozen, until the firing date.

“We conclude that UNC violated its own policies when it placed Frampton on unpaid personal leave instead of initiating formal disciplinary proceedings in accordance with the tenure policies,” the appeals court ruled.

Nakell, who had heard from but not spoken with Frampton late Tuesday afternoon, said the Tuesday ruling was a “win-win” for both parties.

“The university is able to restore its integrity by following its tenure policy and Professor Frampton is able to recover his salary,” Nakell said. “…This result is in the best interest of UNC as well as Professor Frampton. UNC at the highest levels needs to follow its own policy as much as a rogue department chair or secretary or athlete in order to maintain its integrity. Now the administration can set an example of complying with the law.”

Nakell, who noted that UNC administrators could have suspended Frampton’s pay by suspending him instead of putting him on unpaid leave without his consent, said the physicist is active, writing and doing work in his field.

The Daily Mail reported that Frampton also has written about his experiences outside the laboratories. The book, the British news organization reported, is titled: “Tricked! The Story of an Internet Scam.”

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Twitter: @AnneBlythe1