UNC physics professor jailed in Argentina wins back pay

Paul Frampton, the 71-year-old physics professor who was arrested abroad on drug charges after flying to Argentina to meet a woman he thought was a former Miss Bikini World, will get back pay from UNC-Chapel Hill.

The N.C. Court of Appeals on Tuesday reversed a Superior Court judge's ruling that dismissed Frampton’s attempt to win back money that UNC withheld from the tenured professor while he awaited trial on cocaine-trafficking charges in Argentina.

Frampton was arrested in 2012 at the Buenos Aires airport when drugs were found in the lining of a suitcase he was carrying.

Frampton, the Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UNC at the time, became fodder for international tabloids – transformed from superstar particle phenomenologist with three Oxford University degrees to accused smuggler.

Chancellor Carol Folt fired Frampton in May 2014 for misconduct and neglect of duty, according to a letter to Frampton that was sent in care of his Chapel Hill attorney.

But before that, university officials put him on unpaid leave, contending that his imprisonment abroad had made it impossible for him to carry out the duties of his job.

Frampton, who had access to prison phones, claimed to be advising students while he was incarcerated awaiting trial.

The case, from the professor's claims of being duped by a bikini model to his contentions of teaching from prison to his firing several years after his arrest, has been described as "unusual" at most every step.

"This case requires this Court," the appellate-judge panel stated in its Tuesday ruling, "to resolve an unusual and controversial dispute that tests the University’s responsibilities as an employer of tenured faculty and as a steward of public funds. After careful consideration and review of the record, we conclude that the University failed to properly apply its policies for the protection of tenured faculty."

In November 2012, an Argentine court convicted Frampton of drug smuggling and sentenced him to 4 years and 8 months in prison. Under Argentine law, he can be deported after serving half of that.

Frampton has said that he was duped over the Internet by someone claiming to be Denise Milani, a well-known bikini model. Instead of Milani, he was met by a man claiming to represent her and was given what he had thought was an empty suitcase to deliver. Investigators have never said the real Milani knew about the scheme or knew of Frampton.

A prosecutor presented the court with calculations of the drug’s value in Frampton’s handwriting and with texts and emails he apparently thought were going to Milani, sent the day before his arrest and referring repeatedly to drugs and the suitcase. According to a Buenos Aires newspaper, Clarin, the messages to the Milani imposter and to a friend in the United States included: “I’m worried about the sniffer dogs,” “I’m looking after your special little suitcase” and “In Bolivia, this is worth nothing, in Europe it’s worth millions.”

Frampton said in a telephone interview in 2012 that he had written the note after the drugs were found while waiting for the police to finish their work when he began wondering what they were worth and made the quick calculations. The emails and texts, he said, were jokes made when he was sleep-deprived.

As his case played out in Argentina, Frampton quickly became an enduring embarrassment for the UNC administration, thanks to articles about him in everything from The New York Times Magazine to British tabloids.

He also became something of a test case for tenure protection after he and supporters claimed that university administrators improperly stopped his pay after they put him on personal leave while he was awaiting trial.

Normally, personal leave is something the employee has to request. But Frampton received a letter in prison from the UNC provost at the time, informing the professor that he was cutting off Frampton’s pay and putting him on leave because Frampton obviously could not perform his duties.

Frampton countered that he was able to perform enough of his normal duties, including doing independent research, writing papers and advising students by phone, to earn his pay.

Almost 75 academics, including several internationally known physicists and dozens of UNC faculty members, signed an open letter condemning the way his pay had been stopped.

Some said that while Frampton might be an unsympathetic figure, the university was setting a dangerous precedent that could be used as a back-door method of firing tenured faculty.

Frampton tried to get Orange County courts to reverse the university’s decision, but lost.

The three-judge Court of Appeals panel remanded the case back to the Orange County Superior Court for further proceedings.

The appellate judges said UNC incorrectly put Frampton on unpaid leave instead of pursuing disciplinary action first.

The appellate panel ordered the trial court to determine the precise firing date of Frampton and then calculate a monetary damage amount based on pay and benefits due to Frampton during the period between March 1, 2012, when his salary and benefits were frozen, until the firing date.

"We conclude that UNC violated its own policies when it placed Frampton on unpaid personal leave instead of initiating formal disciplinary proceedings in accordance with the tenure policies," the appeals court ruled.

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Twitter: @AnneBlythe1