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McCrory, Lopez feel the heat

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A dozen academics from seven North Carolina colleges and universities delivered a letter this week to Gov. McCrory and State Budget Director Art Pope, asking them to "condemn the Civitas Institute's attempt to punish and intimidate Professor Gene Nichol of the UNC School of Law. "

Nearly 300 scholars from 24 higher-education institutions signed the letter, including 40 professors who signed anonymously, fearing retaliation. "They understand that this is an officially tolerated attack on free speech and they want their concerns to be heard by the public," Duke University professor of history and public policy Nancy MacLean said.

Civitas is a conservative think tank bankrolled largely by the Pope Foundation, which was created by Art Pope. The foundation has provided Civitas with more than 90 percent of its funding, although, an institute spokesperson said that in the last fiscal year, the Pope Foundation supplied only 72 percent. Pope resigned from the Civitas board earlier this year after McCrory appointed him budget director.

Civitas President Francis De Luca requested six weeks of Nichol's personal email correspondence, phone logs, text messages and calendar entries just nine days after Nichol, who also runs the university's Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, wrote a column criticizing the McCrory administration.

"Citizens may reasonably infer that a sitting administration is using a private, tax-exempt nonprofit organization funded by one of its leading officials to retaliate for criticism of its policies and to intimidate future political dissent," MacLean said. "That's serious."

Cat Warren, an English professor and former director of women and gender studies at N.C. State, said a Pope think tank in 2004 asked her to provide budgets, faculty names, syllabi and schedules. "Our program, of course, was a primary target," Warren said, "but I had also written articles that were critical of the Pope Foundation and the think tanks it funds."

Jim Tynen, director of communications for Civitas, said the institute has been interested in the poverty center since 2011. "We do not need to say why we're interested, but it is a publicly supported part of a state institution and we would just like to know what Mr. Nichol's public records show about his work and about the poverty center."

State open records law does not require the public or the media to cite a reason for the request.

Tynen said Civitas is not asking for personal correspondence records, with family or students.

The McCrory administration recently announced it would charge the media and the public fees for records requests that required more than 30 minutes of staff time. In the past, UNC has charged the public for some records requests. In 2009, the university tried to charge Preserve Rural Orange, an environmental group, $1,000–$5,000 to review records. It is unclear if Civitas will have to pay for Nichol's records. —Jane Porter

Unless you're one of this year's 31 homicide victims and their families, Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez had good news for the city Monday night. (Note, the total on Tuesday rose to 32 homicides after a man was found shot to death on Shoreham Drive in Durham's Rockwood neighborhood.)

Because of a decrease in the number of aggravated assaults, violent crime dropped 8 percent through the third quarter of 2013, compared with the same time last year, Lopez told City Council. Reported violent crimes were the lowest since 2005.

However, even without the fourth quarter statistics, homicides are up 12 percent.

The number of murders to date— including the two people shot in a house on Cheek Road Monday morning—is the highest since 2005. That year, the Bull City reported 35 homicides.

Lopez delivered the statistics to city officials under the weight of public scrutiny and mistrust, not only for the surge in murders but also for the lack of transparency regarding officer-related incidents. Most recently, Jesus Huerta, 17, allegedly shot himself in the head while handcuffed in a police car.

"There are issues swirling around the police department and we need to discuss them," Councilman Steve Schewel said. "We need the public to have faith and trust in the department."

Police and city officials attributed the delay in information to a lack of state funding for SBI labs to analyze evidence and a large caseload at the state medical examiner's office, which has resulted in errors, and thus a review of that agency's procedures.

Even in light of those factors, Councilman Eddie Davis noted that DPD should inform the public about the protocols for releasing information about incidents. "Too many things have occurred too often without transparency."

The DPD controversy is raising questions about Lopez' job security. "Chief, you said you want to be here four more years," Mayor Bill Bell said. "That's up to the city manager." —Lisa Sorg

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