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10 media companies sue UNC-Chapel Hill over IDs of employees fired after academic fraud probe

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — A coalition of North Carolina news organizations sued the state's flagship public university Monday to force it to disclose the nine campus employees fired or disciplined for their roles in a scheme allowing fake classes and generous grades to persist for nearly two decades.

The Associated Press and nine other companies filed the lawsuit against University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and Vice Chancellor Felicia Washington, whose job makes her the custodian of campus records.

University spokesman Rick White declined comment until the school is able to review the claims.

North Carolina's public records law requires state agencies, including public universities, to make employee records available. That includes records regarding their dismissal, suspension, or demotion for disciplinary reasons. Campus officials have said the disclosure isn't required until after an employee has finished appealing the decision.

An eight-month investigation by the Washington law firm of former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein reported last month that fake classes 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.

On the day the report was released, Folt said four campus employees were fired and disciplinary actions started against five others.

Since then, 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.

In one case, released employee records show the "end of employment" in April 2013 for Robert Mercer Jr. less than a year after he moved from a job as director of UNC-CH's student-athlete academic support program to a $82,883 job as special assistant in the honors department.

In contrast to UNC-CH's response for employee records, UNC-Wilmington issued a statement promptly upon media queries stating that Beth Bridger, one of the football counselors named in Wainstein's report as steering players toward the bogus classes, lost her job the day the report was published, the lawsuit said. Bridger had started at UNC-Wilmington in January after leaving the Chapel Hill school after seven years in her job there.

State law allows the disclosure of a personnel matter in cases in which an institution's integrity is at stake, the lawsuit 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.


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

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