The letter from the N.C. Pork Council is part of the file the UNC system’s Board of Governors is considering as it weighs whether to tell law-school centers and institutes to stop representing clients in legal matters. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com
The letter from the N.C. Pork Council is part of the file the UNC system’s Board of Governors is considering as it weighs whether to tell law-school centers and institutes to stop representing clients in legal matters. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Orange County

Hog-industry group filed letter critical of UNC Center for Civil Rights

July 12, 2017 06:00 AM

CHAPEL HILL

One of the leading advocates of shutting down the UNC Center for Civil Rights’ law practice solicited a letter from a hog-industry trade group that criticized its handling of a federal complaint and relations with the industry in general.

The letter from the N.C. Pork Council is part of the file the UNC system’s Board of Governors is considering as it weighs whether to tell law-school centers and institutes at UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University they have to stop representing clients in legal matters.

In it, Pork Council CEO Andy Curliss said his group has “not been able to establish a productive working relationship” with the center’s staff lawyers, and that it “disagree[s] strongly” with claims from them and their clients that hog farmers are “practicing ‘environmental racism’ that injures communities of color.”

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Supporters rally in support of UNC Center for Civil Rights

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Curliss said at the start of the letter that he wrote it at the request of Steve Long, the Board of Governors member spearheading the effort to shutter the center’s law practice.

Long confirmed he’d urged the Pork Council to “send in a letter” about its dealings with the Center for Civil Rights.

“I thought we ought to have their comment heard and they should participate in the conversation like everybody else,” Long said.

He added that he believes the council “thought it was inappropriate for the university to have lawyers involved in a dispute that would affect their industry when the lawyers were trying to stop them from participating in a mediation that was going to affect the rules in their industry.”

I thought we ought to have their comment heard and they should participate in the conversation like everybody else.

Steve Long, Board of Governors member

The Pork Council’s letter, however, voiced no such position. Curliss said his organization prefers “to work with the university and other stakeholders,” and added that “neither I nor the N.C. Pork Council wishes to cause any ill will.”

In an email, Curliss said he doesn’t know what Long “had heard or read or to whom he spoke with by the time he reached me” to solicit the letter. Curliss, a former News & Observer reporter, became the council’s CEO in November, replacing Deborah Johnson, a UNC-CH alumna.

Closed-door mediation

The dispute the letter and Long both alluded to occurred in early 2016, while Johnson was still in charge. Lawyers for the Pork Council and another trade group sought to participate in a closed-door mediation between N.C. Department of Environmental Quality regulators and a trio of environmental groups the Center for Civil Rights is helping represent.

The center’s clients in 2014 filed a federal regulatory complaint alleging that DEQ is violating the civil rights of hog-farm neighbors by failing to insist that farmers replace “grossly inadequate and outdated” systems for limiting hog waste’s effects on the air and water. The complaint only targeted the state government, rather than any farmer industry trade group, and in essence argues DEQ isn’t doing its job.

Mediation conferences are open only to the parties to a complaint, unless they all agree someone else can participate, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said after the center’s clients objected to and blocked the Pork Council’s attempt to join the talks.

Center for Civil Rights lawyer Elizabeth Haddix said the Pork Council “doesn’t have any place in” deciding whether or not DEQ is honoring its obligations, and had “sought to interrupt the process” for handling the complaint.

She said the center’s clients had viewed the attempted intervention as “an act of intimidation” because the time, place and agenda for the mediation was supposed to have been confidential, and yet was leaked by DEQ to industry groups.

Curliss letter included “a rather skewed perspective of what happened,” Haddix added.

The Pork Council’s board includes a trio of N.C. State University professors. Their role wouldn’t be affected by the Board of Governors’ pending decision about policy for law-school centers and institutes.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg