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Civil Rights Lawyers Stake Claim In Confederate Statue Case

In August 2018, protesters toppled Confederate statue "Silent Sam" on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.
Jasmin Herrera
In August 2018, protesters toppled Confederate statue "Silent Sam" on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.

RALEIGH — A national civil rights group has warned the leaders of the University of North Carolina that they should reconsider a $2.5 million settlement involving a statue of a Confederate soldier that protesters toppled last year at the system’s flagship campus.

In a letter sent to the attorney who represented the UNC Board of Governors, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law urged the board “to take all necessary action to meet (its) fiduciary obligations to protect UNC’s interest and to recover the 2.5 million dollars to be paid to support a white supremacist organization whose values are antithetical to UNC’s mission.”

The letter was sent Wednesday, two days before the board holds its regularly scheduled meeting via conference call. It doesn’t identify anyone who might be plaintiffs in a lawsuit, although it clearly lays out a case to sue.

Last month, UNC announced that the statue known as Silent Sam would be given to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which would be banned from keeping the monument in any of the 14 counties that are home to university campus. Silent Sam, dedicated in 1913 to honor UNC alumni who fought for the Confederacy, stood in a main quad of the Chapel Hill campus for more than a century before protesters pulled it to the ground in 2018.

Under the agreement, university officials are to create a $2.5 million private fund that would be used for expenses related to preserving the monument or potentially building a facility to house it. Officials have said no state money will be used for the fund

Since the agreement was announced, faculty members on the Chapel Hill campus have condemned the agreement and protesters have marched against it. The state attorney general’s office has distanced itself from the settlement as well.

Attorney General Josh Stein “personally believes it is an excessive amount of money that should instead be used to strengthen the university and support students,” said Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, putting responsibility squarely on the shoulders of UNC leaders.

The department’s attorneys had no role in negotiating the agreement, she said. “The Board of Governors hired outside counsel and negotiated this deal entirely on its own, sidelining our office,” Brewer wrote in an email on Thursday.

But the letter from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law says the interim chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, Kevin Guskiewicz, wrote earlier this month that the settlement agreement was “reviewed and authorized by the Attorney General.”

Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in an email that he doesn’t see anything in the chancellor’s comments that contradicts the statement from the attorney general’s office.

UNC didn’t respond to a request to turn over the letter.

On Wednesday, Guskiewicz, wrote a letter to the system president and chairman of the Board of Governors. He asked that the board and system ensure that the $2.5 million trust is administered appropriately and that the UNC system consider providing more information about the settlement.

Ironically, most of the details of the settlement have come from a letter sent by Kevin Stone, president of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ North Carolina pision. Stone, who signed the consent order, sent a letter to SCV members in which he “explained how the parties secretly worked together to craft a meritless lawsuit” in order to gain possession of Silent Sam and get $2.5 million for its care, the Lawyers’ Committee letter says.

In the letter, Stone says the SCV had no legal standing to sue and if it did sue, “we were 100% certain” that the lawsuit would be dismissed immediately.

“The apparent misrepresentations to the court relating to the SCV’s standing to bring the lawsuit are particularly disturbing,” the Lawyers’ Committee’s letter reads. “Mr. Stone signed a verified complaint alleging under oath that the SCV had standing to bring the suit and then sent a letter to his members admitting not only the claim had no merit but also that the standing was intentionally concealed from the court.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans did not respond to an email seeking comment.