This piece was originally published in April 2020.
At the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, controversy over a Confederate statue has finally reached a resolution, though plenty of questions remain.
“In 2019, UNC Chapel Hill is funding white nationalism. Disgusting.”
The school made national headlines last year when its Board of Governors agreed to a shady court settlement that granted possession of a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam to white supremacist group the Sons of Confederate Veterans, along with $2.5 million for its maintenance.
The move led to months of intense scrutiny, negative press, and motions to intervene by students, faculty, and staff. Then, in February, the judge who initially ruled in favor of Sons of Confederate Veterans made the unusual move of overturning his own decision. In April, he issued yet another ruling that allows Sons of Confederate Veterans to keep $82,000 to cover what the group spent on the lawsuit.
Why would a judge approve such an outrageous deal only to undo it? While there’s no clear answer, peeling back the layers of this story reveals a lot about the networks of power and privilege that connect public officials, elite attorneys, and neo-Confederates in the Tar Heel State.
A bizarre lawsuit takes shape
After years of protest, in August 2018, students toppled Silent Sam, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier that loomed prominently over the main square on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Rather than retiring the monument, the UNC system Board of Governors directed the school’s Chancellor and Board of Trustees to come up with a plan to preserve it. Astoundingly, they proposed to construct a $5.3 million building to house the statue, but the Board of Governors rejected that proposal in December 2018. For most of 2019, the planning stalled––or seemed to––until things took a stunning turn.
On November 27, students, faculty, and other community members were shocked to learn from a press release issued by the Board of Governors that the Sons of Confederate Veterans had sued UNC-Chapel Hill, and that the school agreed to pay the group $2.5 million to take ownership of Silent Sam.
“The University where I work just gave $2.5 million to a neo-Confederate group to protect a Confederate monument (to people they’re not even related to) erected 50 years after the Civil War,” William Sturkey, professor of history, tweeted. “In 2019, UNC-Chapel Hill is funding white nationalism. Disgusting.”
Right off the bat, the lawsuit seemed suspicious.
It was filed and settled the same day the press release came out. But in a New York Times interview published hours later, Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander Kevin Stone claimed to be unsure of exactly when his group had sued the university, even though his signature was on the legal complaint filed, signed, dated and notarized by the group’s attorney that very day.
To make matters worse, the Board of Governors revealed that they had made a $74,999 payout to the Sons of Confederate Veterans prior to the November 27 settlement and claimed it was meant to ensure the group did not protest on North Carolina public university campuses.
Yet, in an interview with The Daily Tarheel, a student paper that has covered this case extensively, Sons of Confederate Veterans attorney Boyd Sturges said the $74,999 was used to pay the United Daughters of the Confederacy for ownership of the statue.
Sturges also said the UNC Board of Governors was aware of this arrangement, despite telling a wholly different story to the public.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy’s claim to the statue was dubious in and of itself. In 1907, the group convinced UNC Chapel Hill’s president to help raise funds to commission the statue, which they gifted to the university. In a dedication speech in 1913, a United Daughters of the Confederacy member said, “Accept this monument and may it stand forever as a perpetual memorial to those sons of the university who suffered and sacrificed so much at the call of duty.” After students knocked Silent Sam down, the United Daughters of the Confederacy claimed that “may it stand forever” was a condition of the gift, and that because it was toppled ownership should revert to their group.
“That is complete and total gibberish. It hurts my head to even think about it to explain it. And if I ever would’ve put that in a contract, I would’ve failed out of law school,” T. Greg Doucette, a local criminal defense attorney told Scalawag.
Doucette has been a vocal critic of the deal between UNC Chapel Hill and Sons of Confederate Veterans. Anonymous members of the group leaked emails to Doucette showing that they had been trying for over a year to sue the university, but ran into issues of legal standing. Buying the statue from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, despite their questionable claim to it, enabled Sons of Confederate Veterans to circumvent that challenge.
In an email Stone sent to Sons of Confederate Veterans members following the November 27 settlement, he noted that their attorneys made sure not to mention the issue of standing in the settlement, “so as not to hamper any future suits” the group “may have to file regarding other memorials.”
A look at the relationships connecting the players reveals a web of political influence and behind-the-scenes plotting.
Throughout, it seems that UNC officials were willing collaborators with the neo-Confederate group. Ripley Rand, an attorney who represented the UNC Board of Governors in the settlement, said in court that “The Board of Governors did not want to win this case. The Board of Governors wanted finality, to bring this issue to a close.”
Friends, influencers, and backroom deals
It’s not hard to see how a plan with so many flaws got this far; a look at the relationships connecting the players reveals a web of political influence and behind-the-scenes plotting.
The NC Heritage PAC, a political action committee formed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has donated over $22,000 to North Carolina political candidates in the last two years, all of whom were Republican, including current state officeholders. Board of Governors members are appointed by the General Assembly, which calls into question the influence wielded by Sons of Confederate Veterans through its donations.
This is made all the more damning by a campaign finance complaint recently filed against NC Heritage for using monies from the Sons of Confederate Veterans 501(c)(3) to fund the PAC.
Critics of the deal have also raised questions about why the lawsuit was handled by Judge Allen Baddour, whose usual districts include Rockingham and Caswell counties, not Orange County, where the case was settled.
However, NC Superior Court judges have the freedom to oversee cases outside of their home districts on unassigned weeks or days, like Nov. 27, giving the impression that the lawsuit’s timing may have been less than coincidental.
Text messages obtained by WBTV show that Baddour and Rand were in contact before the case went to court.
“Everyone is looking at their own pocket book, and in the process, it just happened that this neo-Confederate group benefited.”
Having ruled in favor of UNC-Chapel Hill in multiple other lawsuits, Baddour is perceived as being very pro UNC, making his original decision all the more unsettling.
“I’ve appeared in front of Judge Baddour several times. He strikes me as a good judge who tries to get it right. I’m not thinking that he himself is corrupt,” Doucette noted. “What I think happened was that [Rand] relied on the fact that they were friends to convince him to just sign it without looking too closely, and now it’s become such a scandal.”
The text exchange between Rand and Baddour, as well as Baddour’s decision to backpedal and review the issue of standing, appear to confirm this.
See also: Shrieking Sam
Baddour’s ties to Rand and others affiliated with the university run deep. Baddour’s uncle and Rand’s father served in the NC General Assembly together. His brother is an attorney, alongside Rand, at Womble Bond Dickinson, the law firm which represented UNC-Chapel Hill in the case. Baddour’s father is the former head of the UNC-Chapel Hill athletic department. And over the years, university administrators, officials, and staff have donated to campaigns supporting Baddour’s re-election, according to public records on the N.C. Board of Elections website.
“Everyone is looking at their own pocket book, and in the process, it just happened that this neo-Confederate group benefited,” Doucette commented.
A victory… mostly
Thanks to intense public pressure and an effort by UNC students and faculty to challenge the deal in court, Baddour reversed his original judgement on February 12.
Following Baddour’s decision, Rand asked the judge to dissolve the trust, even though he also stated this “was not the result we had hoped for.” But Sturges, the Sons of Confederate Veterans attorney, claimed the group had already tapped into the trust, using $52,000 for his attorney’s fees.
In response, Baddour requested an accounting expenditure from the group to determine what amount should be refunded.
Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law who represented students and a faculty member opposing the deal, voiced her disapproval.
“If the trust never should have existed in the first place, because the court had no jurisdiction to create it, then these expenditures shouldn’t be covered by public funds. They should be covered by someone else,” Haddix argued.
The matter was up in the air until April 9, when Baddour made a final decision to allow Sons of Confederate Veterans to keep $82,000 for legal fees and “accounting services.”
Scalawag reached out to both the UNC Board of Governors and the Sons of Confederate Veterans but received no comment.