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Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts assures connection to conservative donor's company is nonpartisan

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Chancellor Lee Roberts gave an interview in his South Building office on Friday.

UNC's interim Chancellor Lee Roberts currently serves on the board of directors of Variety Wholesalers, Inc., a private retail company whose CEO and chair is James Arthur “ArtPope, a conservative donor, former state government official and current member of the UNC Board of Governors.

During his tenure on the BOG from 2021-23, Roberts reported income he received from the company in compliance with the State Government Ethics Act, which requires members of state boards to disclose sources of income above $5,000.

The money Roberts received from Variety Wholesalers was a director's fee for serving on its board as a non-shareholder, Pope said. Though Roberts remains a board member, he said he will forgo payment while serving as interim chancellor at UNC. Roberts must continue to disclose his income in 2024 due to his role as interim chancellor. 

Since 1990, individuals affiliated with Variety Wholesalers have donated more than $4.5 million in campaign contributions, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that tracks and publishes data on campaign finances and lobbying.

As of the time of publication, all affiliate donor contributions for political candidates in 2024 went to Republicans. All but $45 of total affiliate donations made by individual members, employees, owners and their immediate family members went to Republican- or conservative-aligned candidates and groups in 2024.

Roberts said he does not think there are any ties between Variety Wholesalers and the North Carolina Republican Party, and that his service on the company's board is nonpartisan. He said he intends to continue leading the University in a nonpartisan way.

“I’ve meant it — I’ve done my best to do that in my first six weeks here, and I’m going to continue to do that," he said. "Serving on a corporate board, no matter what company it is, has no bearing."

Roberts is registered as an unaffiliated voter in North Carolina, but in eight of the last nine primary elections, Roberts has chosen a Republican ballot. He also donated $5,000 to the N.C. Republican Senate Caucus in 2022, according to OpenSecrets.

Roberts succeeded Pope as state budget director from 2014-16, serving in the role under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Pope served as budget director from 2013-14.

Roberts donated $2,500 to support McCrory in his 2016 gubernatorial election, which he lost to current Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Roberts donated $1,000 to Cooper in 2012 during his bid for N.C. attorney general.

Sloan Duvallpresident of UNC Young Democrats, said she thinks Roberts entered his chancellorship intending to be nonpartisan and has not made any decisions that suggest otherwise.

“We’re not going to refuse to work with someone just because they have a different political belief than us, or in the past they’ve had different political beliefs than us," she said. "That’s not how you get anything done in North Carolina."

In an op-ed published by The Daily Tar Heel last week,  five UNC students commented on Roberts' connection to Pope, alleging that the interim chancellor's claims of nonpartisanship are false.

“Art Pope is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful man in North Carolina,” Toby Posel, a UNC sophomore who co-authored the op-ed, said. “He has spent a couple decades building out a vast network of political power and influence using his huge family fortune.”

According to OpenSecrets, Pope has donated more than $1.6 million to filers affiliated with the Republican Party over the past 26 years.

In a letter published in The DTH responding to the op-ed, Pope said, "I am fortunate to have had the benefit of the advice and experience of Roberts as a member of my company's board of directors since 2019, before either of us were members of the UNC Board of Governors."

He critiqued the students' op-ed as left-wing propaganda, calling their claims outdated and saying it is unfair to describe Roberts as partisan in 2024.

Pope said he does not view participating in a democracy, voting in an election or donating to candidates as making an individual partisan.

“I’ve certainly made political contributions in the past, generally as the result of personal relationships — knowing the candidate [or] prospective officeholder,” Roberts said. “I have a lot of admiration for anybody who runs for public office, and I want to support them, but again it just doesn’t have any bearing on how I do this job.  I’m firmly convinced that it has to be done in a nonpartisan way.”

When asked if Roberts was a friend, Pope said, “Yes. Yes, he is."

@maddieahmadi

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