Emails give inside look at Charlotte executives’ efforts to keep NBA All-Star Game

In this June 23, 2015 file photo, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference to announce Charlotte as the site of the 2017 NBA All-Star basketball game. The NBA is moving the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of its objections to a North Carolina law that limits anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people.
In this June 23, 2015 file photo, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference to announce Charlotte as the site of the 2017 NBA All-Star basketball game. The NBA is moving the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of its objections to a North Carolina law that limits anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people. AP

It was early July, and N.C. lawmakers were leaving the capital without making substantial changes to House Bill 2. Top corporate leaders in Charlotte signed a letter urging the NBA to keep the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte anyway.

One top executive, however, said he couldn’t join in, saying his company did not want to be seen as tacitly approving of the controversial law limiting protections for LGBT individuals.

Wells Fargo and other companies have a “constituency who feel strongly that any accommodation in light of HB2 is practically an overt support of it,” David Carroll, one of the bank’s top executives, wrote in a July 1 email. He cited opposition to HB2 from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group.

The email, which was among dozens of messages obtained by the Observer through a public records request, sheds new light on the deliberations of top Charlotte business executives as they urged lawmakers to make changes to HB2 – changes they hoped would dissuade the NBA from relocating the 2017 event.

Ultimately, the General Assembly made limited revisions to the law, and the league announced July 21 it was moving the game.

The emails show the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, chaired by Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, discussing legislative activity in Raleigh and wrestling with whether to send the NBA a letter voicing support for keeping the All-Star Game in Charlotte. The group, formed about a year ago, also debated whether it should keep its actions private.

Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2 into law in March to nullify a Charlotte ordinance that expanded non-discrimination protections to gay, lesbian and transgender people. In addition to prohibiting local governments from adopting anti-discrimination ordinances tougher than state law, HB2 banned people in North Carolina from using government-owned restrooms and locker rooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificates.

Immediately, businesses, performers and sports leagues expressed their opposition to the law, urging its repeal.

Carroll’s email affirmed the CEO group’s concerns about the law’s effect on the LGBT community. But his comments also echoed NBA critics, including U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, who called the league hypocritical for backing out of North Carolina over HB2 while pursuing business opportunities in places such as China.

While Wells “very much” wanted to keep the game, “it is very hard for us to use our reputation in defense of the NBA when they are aggressively pursuing franchise and event opportunities in jurisdictions lacking basic LGBT recognition/rights/protections (China),” Carroll, a long-time Wachovia and Wells Fargo leader based in Charlotte, said in his July 1 email.

The NBA has responded to this criticism by saying it cannot choose the laws in every place where it operates but that it can “make business judgments as to where we will be able to conduct our events successfully.”

CEO group largely private

The Charlotte Executive Leadership Council came to life a year ago when a group of the city’s prominent chief executives said they were getting together to tackle issues such as economic mobility and education. The group announced its formation publicly, but has kept its activities under the radar.

The Observer was able to obtain some of the executives’ emails because the group included a public official, UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois.

The first email is dated May 17 and shows the group was meeting with Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts the next day to discuss a variety of community issues, including the “state of play with HB2,” according to an email sent to the group by Good.

Weeks later, with the session’s end fast approaching, Good scheduled a conference call for June 22 to provide the CEOs an update on HB2 legislative action, deliberations around the All-Star Game and “potential advocacy that may be appropriate, including consideration of a potential statement” by the executive group.

Frank Harrison, CEO of Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, responded that he couldn’t attend but cautioned that “public statements can create unintended consequences.” Good said a letter would be circulated for discussion and she would be happy to talk about it further with Harrison. Fred Whitfield, CEO of the Charlotte Hornets, thanked Harrison for his “counsel and input.”

The day after the conference call, Good sent another update to the executive group. After calls on June 22 and 23 with “leadership of the N.C. Senate and House, the governor’s office, the mayor and the NBA, we are closing in on how this is all coming together logistically,” she wrote the CEOs.

The group, she continued, expected legislation to be introduced early the next week containing “four points discussed on our call” and the establishment of a commission to “evaluate how our state can continue to make progress against any discrimination.” She did not elaborate on the four points.

Good also noted that the NBA had requested the CEO group, along with other leaders in the community, to release letters of support for the All-Star Game. “Although there has always been a risk of a leak of this letter, this is a more deliberate public release,” she wrote, adding “this represents our first public statement as CELC and we have worked hard to make sure the language fits the circumstances of our membership.”

The emails included a finalized version of the CEO group’s letter, dated June 24, which was given to Whitfield. This letter, which the Observer reported on last week, said the group “appreciated the NBA’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion,” urged the league to keep the game in Charlotte and encouraged McCrory and the legislature to pursue “policy solutions that safeguard fairness and equality for everyone.”

In an email that day, Good said that if the legislation did not move forward or if the NBA decided not to keep the game, Whitfield would return the letter “without public release.” Twenty-four executives signed the letter, including Carroll of Wells Fargo, which is based in San Francisco but has a big Charlotte presence.

Whitfield, the Hornets president, told the Observer Tuesday that community leaders were dealing at the time with a rapidly changing situation. He was compiling letters of support from the CEO group, as well as other leaders in the city, in case they were needed to show NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that the league had “the complete support of the business community, civic community and city and county government.”

Charlotte developer Ned Curran, a member of the CEO group and also Charlotte Chamber chairman, said in an interview Tuesday that the group was hearing about items that were likely to be included in the legislation, “but we weren’t privy to the legislation drafting.”

‘Heartfelt letter’

The following week, activity heated up in the legislature. Draft legislation began circulating that included the creation of a commission and other modifications to HB2. The draft, however, would not change a key part of HB2 – the prohibition on transgender persons using the bathroom or locker room of their gender identity in government-run facilities.

“The legislative session remains fluid, and your continued discretion is appreciated,” Good wrote in an email to the CEO group on Tuesday, June 28.

By Thursday, June 30, the NBA and the Hornets issued a statement saying they had been in dialogue with numerous groups, but did not endorse the version of the bill before the legislature. Before adjourning July 1, the legislature restored the right to sue for employment discrimination using a state law. But lawmakers left intact provisions that limited non-discrimination rules for LGBT individuals and directed which restroom transgender people can use.

At noon on July 1, Good sent an email to the CEO group that noted the statement by the NBA and the Hornets. While the June 24 letter would now not be released, she said group members were contemplating a “more simplistic letter of support for the NBA and the All-Star Game.” It also wouldn’t be made publicly available, but would be a “heartfelt letter” to the NBA’s Silver underscoring the community’s support.

At 10:44 p.m. that evening, Carroll sent his email to the CEO group, saying Wells would not join in. He added: “I think it is fair to assume the NBA knows our collective intent and support.” He thanked Good for her leadership on the issue.

Others came out in support of sending the letter, including Dubois, the UNC Charlotte chancellor. “It’s pretty tame, and we should not be paralyzed by the reluctance of one institution,” he wrote in an email.

In a July 5 email, Good attached a copy of a new three-paragraph letter, addressed to Whitfield and Silver. The All-Star Game would be an opportunity to “show the world Charlotte is an open, inclusive and welcoming community,” the letter stated.

The signees were the same as the June 24 letter, except for Carroll and Whitfield, who was now listed as a recipient. The letter, however, was never sent to the commissioner, Whitfield said.

A little more than two weeks later, the NBA announced it was moving the 2017 game, but said it could return in 2019 if changes were made to HB2.

Asked by the Observer about the group’s efforts, Good issued a statement: “The CELC is an organization of CEOs committed to the success and vitality of the Charlotte region. The letter was drafted as part of our effort to keep the All-Star Game in Charlotte.” Wells Fargo said Carroll’s email speaks for itself and that the bank remains “steadfast in our support for policies and practices that protect the rights of all people.”

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker