CHAPEL HILL — The interim president of the UNC System didn't disclose on required annual public statements that he was also paid by major corporations doing business with the state.
Charlotte TV station WBTV reported that Dr. Bill Roper failed to disclose on four of his annual statements of economic interest between 2011 and 2019 that he served on the boards of dialysis services company DaVita Inc. and a pharmacy benefits administrator now part of health insurer Cigna while also serving on the board of UNC Health Care. Roper did disclose income from his board seats in 2017.
Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC System's Board of Governors, said Wednesday he knew about the arrangements.
State law prohibits public servants from using their positions for their financial benefit or for the benefit of their extended family or business. It is a misdemeanor to knowingly withhold material information from one of the statements and a felony to knowingly make a false statement.
"The purpose of a statement of economic interest is to put both the public and the public body on notice that there are issues around which the individual may not be able to participate," said Josh Lawson, formerly the top attorney at the state agency responsible for enforcing the state's ethics act.
Records show Roper made around $5 million from his board positions.
Roper made a base salary of more than $800,000 as CEO of the UNC Health Care System — the state-owned, not-for-profit hospital system and physicians network — between 2004 and 2019. Roper is being paid a base salary of $775,000 as interim president of the UNC System. Roper remains on the UNC Health Care board.
Roper corrected his economic interest statements after WBTV questioned him.
Roper didn't explain why he had omitted information about his outside work in his statements. He said he had disclosed his positions with DaVita and Express Scripts, the company acquired by Cigna, on his professional resume, his official biography while leading the UNC-Chapel Hill medical school and UNC Health Care. He said the companies also reported his role in securities filings.
"I have always recused myself from any matters before UNC Health Care, the UNC School of Medicine or the UNC System that might pose a conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest related to my service with these outside entities," Roper said in an email last week to members of the university system's governing board.
He sent that email last week a day after a review by the current State Ethics Commission that found the potential for a conflict of interest, but no actual conflict and no reason Roper couldn't continue serving as interim president.
Smith, who leads the state university system's governing board, said Wednesday that system leaders knew of Roper's corporate work when they picked Roper in January to take over for departing president Margaret Spellings.
"We have reviewed this matter and we are aware of no instance in which Dr. Roper ever involved himself in a decision that presented a conflict," Smith said in a statement. "We are in full support of Dr. Roper and look forward to his continued service to the UNC System."
WBTV reported Wednesday that the UNC System office provided the TV station with minutes from two 2014 UNC Health Care board meetings that showed Roper recused himself from discussions about a dialysis company that rivals DaVita. But WBTV reported that the UNC System office did not provide records from the meeting at which the board made its final decision on the dialysis contract.
Carolina Journal, meanwhile, reported Wednesday that Smith said this episode might disqualify Roper from seeking the permanent presidency of the UNC System. Later Wednesday, however, the website retracted that story and published a new story that said "Smith says he never suggested that the interim UNC president should no longer be a candidate for the permanent job."
Roper has been interim president since Jan 1. The Board of Governors on Friday didn't approve a search committee until June and didn't name members to a pair of search committees until Friday. Also Friday, the board announced that it hired Kim Strach, the former state elections board director, to be director of the presidential search committee.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that Smith said the Board of Governors will talk more about Roper and potential conflicts of interest at its next scheduled meeting, which is Sept. 19-20 in Chapel Hill.
Read more from Inside Higher Ed: For-Profit Board Seats Cause Headache for UNC President (Aug. 8, 2019)