CHAPEL HILL — Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said Monday that he is giving “serious consideration” to dropping a felony criminal fraud charge against the former department chairman at the center of a long-running academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Woodall said Julius Nyang’oro’s cooperation with a new probe led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein has so far shown to be truthful and fruitful. Wainstein was hired by UNC-CH and the UNC system in February to try to get to the bottom of the scandal involving lecture-style classes that never met. The scandal goes back at least as far as the mid-1990s.
“It appears that Nyang’oro has cooperated fully with them and actually, I think, maybe gone over and above what was expected from him,” Woodall said. “So I am going to seriously consider dismissing his charge based on his cooperation.”
Nyang’oro’s attorney, Bill Thomas of Durham, could not be reached Monday. He has said his client was innocent of the charge. There was a court date scheduled for Nyang’oro’s case Wednesday, but Woodall said he would not finalize his decision by that time.
If Woodall decides not to charge Nyang’oro, that would eliminate the possibility of a criminal trial that could have put a number of UNC-CH officials on the stand to explain what they knew about the classes. It would also mean that the only official venue for finding facts in the case is the one being run by Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official and Homeland Security adviser.
Jay Smith, a history professor who has been a leading voice in pressing for answers in the scandal, said it struck him as “strange” that Woodall would be contemplating dropping the charge as Wainstein’s investigation is progressing. But Smith also said it is odd that Nyang’oro is the only person facing a penalty for the scandal.
“If he is indeed really sharing valuable information with Wainstein, I think that’s wonderful, of course, and it should make the Wainstein report a better report,” Smith said. “But I’m just struck by the procedural connection between these two things.”
Special summer pay
An Orange County grand jury indicted Nyang’oro in December on a charge of obtaining property through false pretenses. It is a low-level felony and would not have resulted in prison time.
The charge stemmed from Nyang’oro accepting $12,000 in special summer pay for a class he did not teach. That class, “AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina,” never met. Correspondence obtained by The News & Observer through a public records request showed Nyang’oro, former chairman of UNC’s African and Afro-American Studies department, created the class days before the summer semester began, and the only students to enroll were 18 football players and a former player.
That prompted the criminal investigation, which took roughly 18 months. Deborah Crowder, Nyang’oro’s longtime department manager, had also been a focus of the investigation for her role in handling academic records tied to the classes. But Woodall last March opted not to go to the grand jury, and she agreed to cooperate with Wainstein’s investigation.
Earlier this month, Thomas said Nyang’oro was cooperating with Wainstein’s investigation. On Friday, Wainstein confirmed Nyang’oro’s cooperation. Wainstein also said his report, which is now stretching back into the 1980s, isn’t likely to be finished until the fall.
Woodall would not provide details to illustrate how Nyang’oro’s cooperation is helping to get to the bottom of the scandal, which involved more than 200 confirmed or suspected classes that never met and typically provided students with a high grade for one term paper. Athletes were disproportionally enrolled in the classes, and Wainstein said their involvement is a “critical” part of his investigation.
But Woodall said he thinks the information Nyang’oro has provided has taken Wainstein’s investigation to places it might not have reached without him.
He also said that given the low-level felony and Nyang’oro’s clean record, “I believe what he has done to help with the investigation is simply more important than putting a man on probation.
“I think he has provided Wainstein with what he considers real critical information in his investigation that he could not get from anybody else in a case where, frankly, the money’s been paid back.”
Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando