Former chancellor Cecil Staton’s departure from East Carolina University (ECU) in 2019 left many with questions. Answers to those questions might arrive soon, given a new lawsuit.
Earlier this month, Staton filed suit against the UNC System. The lawsuit also names its Board of Governors’ former chairman, Harry Smith, attorney Peter Romary and Romary’s firm (QVerity) as defendants. In his complaint obtained by The News & Observer, Staton blamed his 2019 resignation on Smith’s “long-running irrational and obsessive vendetta” against him. Staton asserts that Smith’s harassment began after Staton had “rejected an unethical business proposal” which Smith had offered him.
A Shady Sell at ECU
Staton contends that Smith approached him with “an unethical financial scheme” shortly after he started. The scheme required Staton, on ECU’s behalf, to “guarantee a master lease of hundreds of beds with an apartment complex in Greenville, known as North Campus Crossing…” “In return,” he says, “Smith proposed to buy them in receivership at a historically low price.”
According to Staton, “Smith represented to [him], as well as three trustees on the ECU[ Board of Trustees], that he had ‘clearance’ from the UNC Office of Legal Counsel concerning the North Campus Crossing Scheme.” Staton in turn alleges that was “untrue.” Staton believed that Smith’s proposal focused only on “his personal financial interests” and “was not in the best interest of ECU students or in the financial interests of ECU.” So, he rejected it.
After Staton rejected his proposal, his lawsuit contends, “Smith commenced a course of harassment” against him. Per his account, Staton’s harassment eventually resulted in his eventual resignation. Smith has long denied playing any role in Staton’s departure from ECU.
Staton’s Lawsuit Could Find Support from Some Members in the ECU Community
Staton’s lawsuit will likely receive support among some in the ECU community regardless of how it fares in court. He has already experienced solidarity from groups tied to the university. When he resigned, more than 100 ECU backers signed a letter supporting him. In the letter, they called on the UNC System to release Staton’s performance evaluation as proof of his good work.
ECU Foundation Chairman David Fisher echoed those sympathies at the time. He said he was “deeply disappointed” but unsurprised that Staton had resigned. “He was bullied from the beginning,” Fisher said.