Editor’s note: Carolina Journal has updated this story based on communications with UNC officials. The initial version of this story included information that UNC disputed. CJ regrets any misunderstanding.
University of North Carolina Board Chairman Harry Smith says he never suggested that the interim UNC president should no longer be a candidate for the permanent job.
That’s despite the fact that Smith appeared to have answered a direct question about the issue by saying he believed ethics concerns might disqualify Dr. Bill Roper.
“Does this rule Roper out as a candidate for permanent UNC system president?” CJ asked Smith in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
“You know, in my mind at this point, Kari, it does,” Smith answered.
Less than two hours after CJ published that quote in a story, Smith texted CJ saying he had been “grossly misquoted.”
“What I said was it does not preclude Bill at all from being a successful candidate,” Smith wrote.
A recording of the conversation shows that Smith never made that statement. He did offer comments supporting Roper after answering the initial question about Roper’s eligibility for the permanent job.
A question later in the interview asked whether the ethics concerns surrounding Roper would speed up the process for finding a permanent president.
“No, I mean we’re trying to get that right, Kari. We’ve got a really good team in place, and we’ve been working on, obviously, cleaning up a lot of stuff in the system.”
CJ also asked Smith if he was worried about the optics of the situation, and if those could affect Roper’s standing as interim president.
“I don’t think so at this time, Kari. I mean, there’s a whole lot of things that are said, and when time is allowed, and the facts play out … ‘cause one thing we’re not going to do is go out there and create a lot of fire and brimstone type stuff. And we just have to work through issues every day, Kari.”
Roper, former CEO of UNC Health Care, didn’t disclose his seats on two major corporate boards between 2011 and 2019, an Aug. 6 investigative report from WBTV shows. The two companies — DaVita Inc., and Medco/Express Scripts/Cigna Inc. — reportedly did business with North Carolina government agencies while Roper served. DaVita has ties to the UNC Kidney Center, and MedCo/Express Scripts managed pharmacy benefits for the State Health Plan. Roper was paid for his board roles.
Roper says he forgot to list the affiliations on his Statements of Economic Interest — filings required under the N.C. State Government Ethics Act.
“I have always publicly disclosed my role, interests and status as a shareholder and option‐holder with each of these organizations to UNC Health Care, the UNC School of Medicine, and to the UNC System,” Roper wrote in an email.
“Further, I have always recused myself from any matters before UNC Health Care, the UNC School of Medicine or the UNC System that might pose a conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest related to my service with these outside entities.”
Roper recently amended his SEIs to include the board positions.
There are two separate discussions at hand, Smith told CJ.
Roper didn’t intentionally withhold information from his SEIs, he said, but the BOG in September will discuss Roper’s corporate involvement to determine whether a true conflict of interest exists.
“Dr. Bill Roper’s public board service was well known during his time as CEO of the UNC Health Care System,” Smith said in a public statement Aug. 7. “That information was available to the general public on the Health Care System’s public website and open to examination in public filings with and evaluations by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Dr. Roper also fully disclosed his board service to us when the Board of Governors appointed him as interim president and received authorization to continue his service.”
The N.C. State Ethics Commission on Aug. 1 wrote to Smith with an evaluation of Roper’s SEI.
“We did not find an actual conflict of interest, but found the potential for a conflict of interest,” wrote Mary Roerden, who represents the commission’s SEI Unit. “The potential conflict identified does not prohibit service on this entity.”
UNC will carefully vet all candidates to avoid future conflicts of interest, or appearances thereof, Smith said.