Judge: Media, UNC-Chapel Hill to mediate lawsuit over names of those fired amid academic fraud

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — A state judge directed North Carolina's flagship public university and a media coalition to try settling a lawsuit demanding the names of nine employees fired, demoted or otherwise disciplined in the academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens says he doubts state law allows agencies like the university to state they have held employees accountable for misdeeds without giving further details or explanations.

"It's one thing to say a terrible thing has happened and heads have rolled, but I'm not going to tell you whose heads or what happened," Stephens said.

Stephens ordered the two sides to quickly negotiate a settlement to the dispute involving The Associated Press and nine other media companies. The judge put no timetable on the two sides, but indicated he wanted some movement in the next couple of weeks.

The dispute follows an Oct. 22 statement by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt that four campus employees were fired and five others disciplined for their roles in an academic fraud scheme.

Folt said the employees were being held accountable hours after the school unveiled an eight-month investigation by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein describing fake classes which allowed 3,100 athletes and other students to earn artificially high grades from 1993 to 2011.

While the sham courses were in one academic department, multiple people around campus knew of them or suspected something but said nothing, the report said.

North Carolina's public records law requires state agencies like public universities to make available employee records regarding their dismissal, suspension, or demotion for disciplinary reasons.

Campus officials have said the university isn't required to provide those documents until the employee's rights to challenge the discipline have run out, a process that could take months or years. A state attorney representing UNC-CH told Stephens the school based that on 2010 advice from the state attorney general's office.

Since the report's release, UNC-CH has responded to public records requests for employee files of workers criticized in the report by providing their salaries and titles, historical information on hiring dates and salary raises, but not disciplinary information. After initially listing an academic counselor named in the Wainstein report as remaining on the campus payroll, the school later said Jaimie Lee had lost her $39,000-a-year job a month earlier on the same day the report was published.

The university disclosed Lee's lost employment after her opportunity to appeal the decision expired, said Kimberly Potter, a deputy state attorney general who is representing the school.

But university officials are "not required to create documents or explain what process is going on along the way as to each employee," Potter said. "The university is in compliance to what is required by our statute."

Stephens said he was unlikely to agree with the attorney general's opinion of when the public should know details of a public employee's firing, but didn't issue a ruling on that point.

If a manager comes to a firing decision "so that they are required to walk out the door, then that's probably a final disciplinary decision," Stephens said.

Other media companies participating in the lawsuit are Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc.; DTH Media Corp.; WTVD Television LLC; The Durham Herald Co.; The News And Observer Publishing Co.; Media General Inc.; The Charlotte Observer Publishing Co.; TWC News & Local Programming LLC; and BH Media Group Inc.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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