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'A fictitious narrative': Silent Sam committee had no role in settlements with SCV

The Silent Sam statue in McCorkle Place is wrapped in a confederate flag one day in September of 2015. 

The Silent Sam statue in McCorkle Place is wrapped in a confederate flag one day in September of 2015. 

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article said the Board of Governors voted to task five members to review options for Silent Sam. This did not occur through a formal Board vote, but rather an executive action from the chairperson. The story has been updated to reflect this information, and The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

After months of pushing back deadlines and delaying votes, it now appears the members of the UNC System Board of Governors had no part in negotiating either of the November 2019 settlements with the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans regarding Silent Sam's future.

When the BOG turned down UNC-Chapel Hill’s $5.3 million proposal to house the statue in a museum, the Board chairperson tasked five of its members with working alongside the campus to find a solution. 

That was in December 2018. Just under a year later, the public would learn that the BOG had entered into two separate settlement agreements with the SCV.

The five members charged with eventually bringing a recommendation to the full Board, however, were not part of these negotiations.

One year — and one lawsuit settlement — later, based on the testimony of UNC System officials, it appears the BOG deliberately misled the public on the role of the five BOG members and their role in the deals.

Behind the scenes of two settlements

The first settlement, signed on Nov. 21, 2019, was an agreement to pay $74,999 to limit the SCV’s actions on system campuses. On Nov. 27, the BOG then signed an agreement to give the SCV possession of Silent Sam and enact a $2.5 million trust for its preservation.

The Nov. 27 settlement was vacated in February. But the Nov. 21 settlement remained in effect.

A signed statement from the UNC System showed that four individuals were involved in its negotiations: SCV lawyer Boyd Sturges; UNC System lawyers Ripley Rand and Tom Shanahan; and Clayton Somers, UNC-Chapel Hill’s vice chancellor for public affairs.

“The terms of this settlement were discussed during a meeting on or about November 21, 2019 attended by Clayton Somers, Ripley Rand, Tom Shanahan, and the SCV’s attorney (Boyd Sturges) and then documented by the parties’ attorneys,” the statement said.

According to the statement, Somers was chosen because he previously knew Sturges. The DTH reached out to Somers to ask about his involvement in the settlement, but he declined an interview, saying he has nothing to add beyond what is already in the statement.

This signed statement was released as part of a settlement agreement between the DTH and the BOG.

The statement went on to explain that the system was aware the SCV intended to use the funds from the settlement to buy the statue from the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“Although the SCV was under no obligation to do so under the November 21 settlement, it is the University’s understanding that the SCV used some portion of the funds paid by the University to acquire the assignment from the UDC,” the statement said. “No University representative communicated with the UDC about the November 21, 2019 settlement.”

The statement confirmed reporting from The Daily Tar Heel that the settlement enabled the SCV to purchase the monument from the UDC. 

Read the full statement here:

‘A public face’

Five members of the BOG — Jim Holmes, Bob Rucho, Wendy Murphy, Darrell Allison and Anna Nelson — were tasked with the responsibility of finding a solution to the Silent Sam problem.

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After the news of the two November 2019 settlements broke, these five BOG members signed their names to an editorial that was published in the News & Observer on Dec. 16.

The op-ed claimed they worked on the settlements, and if these claims were true, that means the BOG would have likely violated state Open Meetings Law by not conducting public meetings on the subject.

But testimony from UNC System Vice President for Communications Earl Whipple revealed that he penned the op-ed.

He claimed the purpose of the op-ed was to translate the settlements into language the public could understand more easily and to correct errors in media coverage. Though he said the five BOG members did approve the final version of the op-ed, according to Whipple's testimony:

  • He had no knowledge of the group having any formal meetings regarding Silent Sam
  • He did not discuss whether the five BOG members had knowledge of the details of the settlement agreement or the SCV’s Nov. 27 lawsuit
  • He had no knowledge of the five BOG members discussing this issue of Silent Sam

So why sign their names if they didn’t write the op-ed, and if it was unclear if they had a role in either of the settlements?

"It was my professional recommendation that individual names gives a public face to this," he testified. "And since these five were, you know, tasked with working on this issue, my recommendation was we draft something that all five of them could sign onto."

To add credibility.

Hugh Stevens, who represented the DTH in its lawsuit against the System, said Whipple’s op-ed misled the public.

“In a clumsy attempt to shine a favorable light on two controversial agreements with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he inveigled five members of the Board of Governors to lend their names and reputations to a fictitious narrative claiming that they had negotiated both,” he said. “... Instead, Whipple merely invoked their names in his attempt to put a gloss on two questionable agreements cooked up by lawyers behind closed doors.”

BOG member Marty Kotis told The Daily Tar Heel on Tuesday that the full Board did not mislead the public.

He said those five individual Board members may have, but they weren’t representing the Board when they wrote the op-ed. 

“I know the BOG was not involved in that,” he said.

Kotis said he never saw the op-ed before it was published.

In his testimony, Whipple said nothing about the op-ed was untruthful or misleading.

Read the full deposition here:

What’s next?

Following the conclusion of the DTH's lawsuit, many questions remain:

Though it’s clear the BOG’s Silent Sam subcommittee had no role in the System’s settlement with the SCV, how thoroughly vetted was it?

Why was Somers involved in these negotiations, and who was in the loop at UNC-Chapel Hill?

And, what happens to Silent Sam now?


Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history major.