Winfall mayor sues critic

By Cathy Wilson

The Perquimans Weekly

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HERTFORD — Winfall Mayor Fred Yates has filed a lawsuit against a longtime critic, claiming the critic’s accusations about him to the University of North Carolina president “knowingly and maliciously defamed” him.

The lawsuit, filed June 21 in Perquimans Superior Court, alleges that Fred Tanner’s two letters to UNC President Erskine Bowles about Yates contain “libelous statements” that accuse the Winfall mayor of “moral turpitude, felonious criminal behavior and of being a (lecher).”

According to the lawsuit, those accusations, made by Tanner “with no regard for the truth,” damaged Yates by causing him a “loss of reputation and extreme humiliation.”

Yates’ lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Tanner in excess of $10,000 as well as attorneys’ fees and expenses for the cost of the lawsuit.

Neither Yates nor Tanner would comment on the lawsuit. Both men referred a reporter to their attorneys.

Yates’ attorney, C. Sean Yacobi of Kitty Hawk-based Dan L. Merrell and Associates, said the lawsuit speaks for itself.

“When someone makes statements that are not true, it’s time to do something,” Yacobi said.

Tanner’s attorney, John Trimpi of Trimpi and Nash in Elizabeth City, said he is in the process of writing a response to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Tanner first wrote Bowles on March 13, 2007. In his letter, Tanner alleged that Yates “was embezzling travel and expense money from the State of North Carolina and the Town of Winfall...” and that “the State Auditor (had) found Yates in violation of four felony statues relating to embezzlement.”

Tanner apparently had written to Bowles because Yates, in addition to serving as Winfall mayor, had also served on the Elizabeth City State University Board of Trustees. ECSU is one of the 16 campuses in the University of North Carolina System that Bowles has headed since October 2005.

Yates currently is the paid executive director of the ECSU Foundation, the university’s fund-raising arm.

According to the lawsuit, Tanner wrote a second letter to Bowles on Jan. 21, 2010. In that letter, Tanner alleged that Yates “... is well known in our community for his unethical behavior.” The letter also accused Yates of “known felony crimes of perjury and embezzlement.”

The lawsuit states that Tanner also defamed Yates in the Jan. 21, 2010 letter by claiming, “with no regard for the truth,” that Yates “has sired illegitimate (children) and is well known for his desire for young women outside of marriage.”

The lawsuit also claims that Tanner advised Bowles in the letter that Yates “does not deserve to be working near young female students” and that Yates “does not have the ethics to be near university employees, nor the foundation-controlled dormitory near innocent and vulnerable young students.”

Tanner also described Yates as “unethical, and (of having) a proven track record of criminal activity,” the lawsuit states.

A spokeswoman for Bowles told The Perquimans Weekly recently that the UNC president in fact received four letters from Tanner between March 2007 and February 2010.

“President Bowles received a letter from Mr. Tanner dated March 13, 2007, as well as a follow-up letter dated September 15, 2007,” Joni B. Worthington, vice president for communications, wrote in an e-mail. “President Bowles responded to Mr. Tanner on September 28 thanking him for his interest in ECSU, apologizing for his oversight in not responding to the initial letter, and advising Mr. Tanner that Mr. Yates’ tenure on the ECSU Board of Trustees had ended.”

Worthington said when Bowles received the Jan. 21, 2010 letter from Tanner, he forwarded it to ECSU Chancellor Willie Gilchrist and to UNC’s attorney for “appropriate follow-up.”

“Chancellor Gilchrist acknowledged receipt of the correspondence and assured President Bowles that he would look into the issues raised in (Tanner’s) letter,” Worthington said.

Tanner then wrote to Bowles again on Feb. 18, “retracting the contents of his earlier letter,” she said.

Bowles replied to the letter the same day, Worthington said, “thanking (Tanner) for the letter.”

Tanner, a former member of the Winfall Planning Board, has long been a Yates critic. In 2005, he alerted the State Auditor’s Office that the Winfall mayor had accepted reimbursement twice for the same travel expense — once from the town of Winfall and again from state agencies on whose boards Yates served at the time.

According to a published report, the State Auditor’s Office found that between July 2001 and March 2002 the Rural Economic Development Center and the Governor’s Crime Commission reimbursed Yates $572 for travel expenses. Yates also received an advance payment for those same expenses from the town of Winfall, the State Auditor said.

The State Auditor’s report also found that between December 2001 and March 2002, Yates was paid $166.18 for lodging expenses “for which no supporting receipts were on file with the Town of Winfall.”

After initially telling the State Auditor’s Office that he believed he was entitled to the reimbursements from both Winfall and the two state agencies, Yates later admitted he had made a mistake, apologized and resigned from the Rural Center’s board of directors. He also reimbursed both the state and the town for the expenses.

The incidents were investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation, but no charges were ever filed.

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