UNC hires outside attorney to investigate academic fraud

Feb. 21, 2014 @ 06:24 PM

UNC-Chapel Hill has hired an outside attorney to conduct an independent investigation into course irregularities in the former department of African and Afro-American Studies.

UNC system President Tom Ross and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt released a statement Friday that said they’ve picked Kenneth L. Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department, to serve as an independent counsel to conduct the investigation.

The UNC department was being examined by the State Bureau of Investigation following claims of possible criminal misconduct by professors paid for classes they weren’t teaching.

During a UNC Board of Trustees meeting Jan. 23, Folt acknowledged there was a past “failure” in academic oversight, referencing the academic scandal investigation into no-show classes, grade rosters with forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes dating back to 1997 within the department.

The classes enrolled a number of UNC student-athletes, but Folt has said there is no proof yet that the no-show classes were created specifically for student-athletes.

According to UNC, it has remained in contact with Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall throughout his investigation into potential criminal activity. Woodall’s investigation also looked into whether anyone tried to cover up crimes in the department and if anyone illegally changed grades and committed fraud.

Julius Nyang’oro, former chairman of African and Afro-American Studies department, resigned last August from that position.

He is charged with obtaining property by false pretenses - Woodall said Nyang’oro is accused of taking $12,000 for UNC classes he never taught.

Woodall has agreed to share information he uncovers during the criminal investigation with Wainstein.

Wainstein, a partner with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP in Washington, D.C., has served as general counsel and chief of staff to the FBI and was twice nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate for leadership positions in the Justice Department, according to the university.

In 2004, he was appointed the U.S. attorney in Washington, where he oversaw the investigation and prosecution of high-profile white-collar cases. In 2006, he was confirmed as the first assistant attorney general for national security, and in 2008, he was named homeland security adviser by President Bush.

The university stated there is no timetable set for this additional investigation. A written report will eventually be made public.

“We — the UNC Board of Governors, UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, Chancellor Folt and I — have said all along that we would re-evaluate next steps once the SBI had completed its investigation,” said Ross in a statement. “Thanks to the cooperation of District Attorney Woodall, the university may now have access to additional information needed to address any remaining questions and bring this matter to closure. Chancellor Folt and I felt strongly that this would best be handled by bringing in the outside, independent perspective of an experienced professional like Ken Wainstein.”

“We have directed Mr. Wainstein to ask the tough questions, follow the facts wherever they lead, and get the job done,” Folt said in the statement. “I have quickly grown to admire the extent to which the Carolina community has encouraged me to look within the university, to identify challenges and to take strong actions to address them. I believe these efforts will accelerate the university’s capacity to achieve the meaningful academic and athletic reform that our entire community expects.”

A probe led by former Gov. Jim Martin that delved back to 1997 found more than 200 courses offered in the African and Afro-American Studies department involved little or no instruction, as well as found more than 400 suspected unauthorized grade changes.

Wainstein and his office would not comment further at this time about his new role with UNC-Chapel Hill. University spokeswoman Robbi Pickeral said in an email that UNC officials would not comment beyond the statement they released Friday until Wainstein's work is complete.

When asked how much the university is paying for the independent counsel, Pickeral said the university will be billed on an hourly basis. Approval to retain him was obtained from the N.C. offices of the attorney general and the governor. No state-appropriated funds will be used.