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UNC spent more than $500K for PR help in academic fraud scandal

Three weeks before a former governor would announce in a report that UNC Chapel Hill’s academic fraud scandal stretched as far back as the mid-1990s, a trio of public relations experts readied Chancellor Holden Thorp as part of a four-hour prep session that included handling likely questions from reporters.

It was part of a public relations and communications effort that ultimately cost the university more than $500,000 over the past two years.

The Fleishman-Hillard firm received $367,000 for 22 months of work; Doug Sosnik, a political consultant who is also a National Basketball Association official, received $144,000 for 10 months work; and Sheehan Associates of Washington, D.C., received nearly $20,000 for work performed on “two occasions,” a university official said.

The university’s privately funded foundation is picking up the tab.

The News & Observer obtained Sosnik’s correspondence from the university this month. Here is some of what it shows:

• The key message Sosnik wanted reinforced was that the scandal was in the past; the university had made reforms and would become stronger as a result.

• UNC officials grumbled about what they perceived as negative media coverage and editorials, primarily in The N&O.

When a favorable editorial emerged from The Robesonian, a Lumberton newspaper, Wade Hargrove, the UNC trustees chairman, sent it to his colleagues, who were happy to see it.

“Thanks, Wade,” wrote trustee Felicia Washington. “In my view, that was better reading material.”

• UNC administrators, with the help of Sosnik and Britt Carter of Fleishman-Hillard, fought back when a former learning specialist, Mary Willingham, in the academic support program for athletes told The N&O that staff there used no-show classes to keep academically challenged athletes eligible.

The administrators and public relations consultants reviewed and offered edits to a letter to The N&O editorial page written by Steve Kirschner, an athletic department spokesman, that sought to refute Willingham’s claims.

• UNC trustee Don Curtis and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham didn’t think the NCAA would dig into the academic fraud after former Gov. Jim Martin’s probe concluded it was an academic scandal, and not an athletic scandal.

Cunningham said he thought The N&O was trying to lobby the NCAA back to the campus.

“I believe that is their end game,” Cunningham wrote on Jan. 2, “but as far as I know and as the facts are today there is no suggestion that the NCAA is coming back.”

Kane: 919-829-4861
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