Before Kenneth L. Wainstein turned 50, he had been a U.S. attorney for the nation’s capital, the FBI’s chief of staff and Homeland Security adviser in the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Those jobs put him in charge of some of the nation’s biggest government corruption cases, counter-terrorism measures and disaster response efforts.
These days, as a private lawyer, he’s calling people into a conference room at UNC-Chapel Hill’s South Building to ask them what they know about the university’s recent academic scandal. Three other lawyers in his firm are assisting him in what appears to be UNC’s and the UNC system’s most dedicated effort yet to understand the roots of a system of no-show classes that disproportionately benefited athletes.
“As you can tell, he is the real deal,” said Peter Hans, the UNC Board of Governors’ chairman, in an emailed statement.
Wainstein, 52, is an Alexandria, Va., native with no ties to UNC. He is leading the third investigation in three years to try to explain how, over a period reaching back into three decades, a former department chairman and his top assistant created more than 200 confirmed or suspected lecture-style classes that never met and typically required a term paper that received a high grade. More than 500 questionable grade changes are also under investigation, as are hundreds of accurately-named independent studies within the African studies department that had little or no supervision.
It is unclear how long his investigation will last. Wainstein declined to be interviewed for this story. So far, he has interviewed Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist who blew the whistle on the classes, and Deborah Crowder, the former African studies department manager who was involved in arranging many of them.
Wainstein climbed the ranks as a federal prosecutor after graduating from law school at the University of California at Berkeley. One of his biggest cases was the conviction of a gang leader on murder charges after three Starbucks employees were shot dead in Washington’s normally sedate Georgetown area in 1997. The murders had the city on edge.
Later, as the FBI’s chief of staff and general counsel, he helped remake the bureau into a counterterrorism agency after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Records show the UNC system’s general counsel, Thomas Shanahan, began the search for a highly-regarded investigator in early January. That was a month after Julius Nyang’oro, the chairman of the African studies department, was indicted on a felony fraud charge for receiving $12,000 in special summer pay for a class he didn’t teach.
It was also when the national media began reporting heavily on the scandal.
Shanahan reached out to Wainstein’s firm and another that includes former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who investigated the way Penn State University officials handled allegations that one of its former assistant football coaches, Jerry Sandusky, was using his access to the university to molest boys.
Investigating the NCAA
Wainstein, meanwhile, was involved in cleaning up another high-profile university scandal that had taken an unexpected turn. The NCAA was investigating allegations that a University of Miami booster, later convicted of a Ponzi scheme, had been paying athletes and underwriting their partying.
Wainstein’s job, though, was to investigate whether the NCAA’s probe was clean. He found it wasn’t. An investigator had paid the booster’s attorney to surreptitiously assist his probe, which she did by using bankruptcy proceedings to compel testimony from witnesses the investigator had difficulty reaching.
Wainstein exposed the improper tactic, which led to firings within the association’s enforcement staff. He later co-produced a report for the NCAA to help it reform its enforcement operations. That report has yet to be made public.
His recently-completed work for the NCAA, plus his new, open-ended contract to investigate the academic scandal for UNC, have raised questions about his independence. Can he produce a report that has the potential to embarrass a current client and a recent client?
Neil MacBride, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and chief counsel to then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, worked on the Democratic side of the aisle. But he said Wainstein has shown the kind of expertise and integrity needed to tell a president and an attorney general what they needed to hear, even if it didn’t help them politically.
“His track record is unsurpassed in that regard,” said MacBride, who is now in private practice. “He was somebody who was known for being an absolute straight shooter. He was not going to sugar-coat things.”
Hans said he is looking for the unvarnished truth. Two prior investigations left many questions unanswered and obscured the athletic ties to the scandal.
UNC’s first investigation did not disclose the high numbers of athlete enrollments in the no-show classes. A second UNC-backed probe led by former Gov. Jim Martin claimed athletic officials had twice alerted a faculty committee about the no-show classes, but later had to admit it had no evidence to show that actually happened.
“For the good of the university, it is well past time to address any and all unanswered questions,” Hans said in his statement. “Let the chips fall where they may.”