Opinion

A new UNC ethics problem. Same arrogant response

A pro tip for public officials — including university presidents — who may someday face the pesky task of filling out ethics forms: They are not hard. In fact, there are really just two approaches to take. You can answer each question candidly and thoroughly. Or you can do what interim University of North Carolina system president William Roper did.

As reported by WBTV this week, Roper did not disclose his position on multiple corporate boards between 2011-2019 while those corporations did business with the state. At least one of those companies, DaVita Inc., has ties to the UNC Health Care System, with UNC web pages listing referrals to DaVita clinics and touting research being conducted by doctors with support from DaVita.

Roper was CEO of the UNC Health Care System from 2004 to 2019. DaVita, Inc., paid Roper more than $3.6 million in compensation between 2010 and 2018, WBTV reported.

To be clear, there’s no law forbidding state government employees from serving on corporate boards. Those employees, however, have to disclose those relationships when they fill out “statement of economic interest” forms. Roper didn’t, at least initially. When he was asked by WBTV about the omission, he quickly did what he should have done all along — answered the questions fully.

More troubling, perhaps, is the shrug that Roper’s problems got from one of his bosses. When asked about Roper’s missteps this week, UNC Board of Governors chair Harry Smith told the News & Observer’s Kate Murphy that he’s not concerned about it. Roper wasn’t intentionally trying to hide anything, Smith said. He also added: “Forms can be complicated.”

Some may be, but not these. If you do run into difficulty, the NC Ethics Commission helpfully offers an email address and phone number for questions. The commission even provides a list of tips, such as “make certain you answer each question.

In a statement, Brown also said the UNC Health Care System provided documents that show Roper was “careful to avoid any conflicts.” Roper similarly told WBTV that he “comprehensively and intentionally recused myself from any matters related to these companies,” but neither Brown nor Roper provided documents showing such recusals.

The public should see such evidence on or before Sept. 19, when Smith says the Board of Governors will further discuss any conflict of interest Roper might have had. We hope and expect that Roper will be called to answer questions about why he was less than forthcoming on his ethics form, and he also should detail how and precisely when he sought to untangle himself from UNC Health System business involving the corporations that paid him to sit on their boards.

Doing so would send a signal to other UNC system employees about conflicts of interest, and it also would send an important message to the public about an alarming culture of defensiveness and dismissiveness at UNC. That arrogance manifested itself in the flagship university’s recent unwillingness to fully disclose problems with fake courses that helped keep athletes academically eligible, and it reappeared this year when UNC tried to seal itself from public scrutiny regarding troubles with pediatric heart surgeries at North Carolina Children’s Hospital.

That culture starts at the top, with the Board of Governors. Now is a good time to begin changing it.

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