UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp flew multiple times on private planes with former UNC fundraisers Matt Kupec and Tami Hansbrough, trips that university records show took place after Thorp stopped Kupec from hiring Hansbrough because the two were dating.
Thorp said Monday he didn’t question their travel at the time, even though Kupec, the chief fundraiser as vice chancellor for advancement, rarely flew with any of many other fundraisers at the university who had higher-ranking jobs than Hansbrough. Thorp said vice chancellors such as Kupec are in charge of their own travel.
The flights Thorp took with the couple weren’t the only red flag he missed in a controversy that led to resignations by Kupec and Hansbrough last week and contributed to Thorp’s resignation on Monday, effective at the end of the academic year.
Thorp has said he knew that Kupec and Hansbrough, the mother of former star player Tyler Hansbrough, were in a relationship since at least the fall of 2009. That knowledge, Thorp said, prompted him to quash efforts by Kupec in 2010 to create a fundraising position in Kupec’s office that seemed to be lined up for Hansbrough, who was then working for the dental school’s foundation.
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Hansbrough eventually began work as a fundraiser in the university’s division of student affairs at a salary of $95,000. The News & Observer reported last week that the position’s creation was initiated by Kupec and that Kupec’s office also funded it. Hansbrough began that new job in February 2011 after working for the dental foundation from December 2008 to January 2011.
Thorp has said he was OK with the arrangement. It doesn’t appear that, until recently, he gave the matter any other oversight.
Flights on private planes
Records examined by The N&O show that Kupec and Hansbrough began traveling together aboard commercial and private planes in May 2010, while Hansbrough was still working for the dental foundation.
Their destinations would total at least 20 cities over two years.
Most of the flights taken by Kupec and Hansbrough together were on private planes operated by a university-affiliated entity called Medical Air Inc., now based at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Before last year, the planes were based in Chapel Hill.
The primary mission of Medical Air is to ferry university doctors to rural parts of North Carolina to treat residents who cannot otherwise get high-quality medical care or to train doctors in those areas.
The planes are available on a limited basis for other state uses, including fundraising, athletics and for chancellors, according to Medical Air officials. They said medical flights take priority over others.
A review of Medical Air flight records indicates that Kupec traveled with Hansbrough more than anyone else, including Thorp or any of several fundraising officials who work with Kupec in the university’s advancement office.
The records also show that Kupec and Hansbrough flew on Medical Air planes at least three times to places where Hansbrough’s son, Ben, was playing basketball for Notre Dame. The university’s development office paid $5,220 to Medical Air Inc. for the use of the private planes for those trips, which were to Louisville, Ky.; New York; and Morgantown, W.Va.
The flight times correlated to the Notre Dame game schedule. For example, the two flew on a Medical Air plane to New York on Jan. 16, 2011, arriving at 10:22 a.m. Notre Dame played St. John’s University at Madison Square Garden that day at noon. The plane took off for Chapel Hill at 3:38 p.m., according to the flight manifest.
At least three other times, Kupec and Hansbrough took commercial flights that coincided with Notre Dame games, according to records and university officials.
Help getting home
Basketball flights weren’t the only ones the two took.
The records show that Kupec flew with Hansbrough to Kill Devil Hills; Charlotte; Greenville; Charlottesville, Va.; Asheville; Nashville, Tenn.; Wilmington; and Montana, among other places.
It is not clear why – other than their relationship – Kupec traveled with Hansbrough on all those trips instead of with other major gifts officers who work on the university’s advancement efforts.
According to the flight manifests, Kupec flew on Medical Air planes only one time each with the university’s director of major gifts or the director of corporate and foundation gifts. He flew with four other gifts staffers once each, according to the manifests. In all, the university lists about 40 staffers whose job is to help raise money.
The purpose of the trips Kupec took with Hansbrough isn’t clear, though some correlate to university gatherings that would be fundraising opportunities or appear to be related to a meeting with a possible donor.
The Montana trip is an example.
Kupec and Hansbrough flew to Montana on a roundtrip commercial flight on July 21 last year, a Thursday, with a return scheduled for July 25, a Monday. But something happened, and they wanted to change plans, according to an email message at the time. Kupec’s assistant wrote to Medical Air officials that week to request a private plane for part of the return trip home.
“Matt and Tami will be returning from a donor visit from Montana,” the assistant wrote. “There are some issues going on in the office so need to be back on Sunday. Flights are limited from Chicago to RDU.”
It was not clear whether it was Kupec’s office or Hansbrough’s office that had issues.
Based on that email message, a Medical Air plane went to Chicago on July 24 and brought the two back, arriving in Chapel Hill at 10 p.m. The university’s development office paid $4,059 for that trip, according to invoices and Medical Air Inc.
University officials have not provided detailed records or other information about any of the flights and billings, including reimbursement information or supporting material related to the purpose of the trip. They have cited an ongoing internal audit that is trying to determine whether any flights were inappropriate.
Kupec has declined to comment. The N&O has been unable to reach Hansbrough.
NYC with the chancellor
The Medical Air flight manifests show that Thorp was aboard planes with Kupec and Hansbrough in April, June and December of 2011 and then again in March 2012, which was the last time Kupec and Hansbrough were together on a Medical Air plane.
All their flights with Thorp were going to or coming from New York. On two flights, Thorp’s wife, Patti, joined them as the only other passenger on board the six-seat, propeller-driven planes.
Thorp said Monday in an interview that at the time, he had no reason to question the travel by Kupec with Hansbrough.
“The trips we went on were university business,” Thorp said.
Still, Thorp has acknowledged in several recent interviews that questions did crop up – two months after that last flight together.
In May, during a regular personnel review of Kupec, a review committee raised questions about Kupec’s relationship with Hansbrough and their travel, Thorp said.
“Matt had his five-year review this spring,” Thorp said, “and at the end of that, there were concerns raised about Matt’s travel and about whether it was appropriate and whether it was sort of personally driven or professionally driven.”
Thorp said he asked Kupec about it at the time of the review and Kupec told him the travel was for university business. Thorp said he did not take any other action at that time.
The N&O began seeking travel information related to Hansbrough in mid-August, but had been denied before appealing directly to Thorp.
Thorp said he asked a university lawyer “in recent weeks” to gather information about Kupec’s travel.
After he looked at it, Thorp said he concluded that some travel was personally driven and ordered the deeper review by an auditor. Kupec, a former Tar Heel quarterback whose university work had helped raise $4 billion, resigned.
Thorp was questioned about all this behind closed doors by the UNC system Board of Governors and by his boss, system president Tom Ross, late last week. The content of those discussions has not been publicly disclosed and officials issued statements with varying degrees of support.
Ross told reporters on Friday that Thorp acted decisively on the travel issue. Board of Governors chairman Peter Hans said that while Thorp has done well on some measures, he “needs to be successful in clearing up some lingering issues on campus.”
Staff writers Jane Stancill and Dan Kane contributed to this report.