What we can learn from John McCormick

In addition to being a fascinating drama, the John McCormick saga is also a cautionary tale for us. I never met the man, but I was long aware that something was not right with him. I knew for a fact that he was a slum lord with properties in my neighborhood, and I had also heard rumors that he was involved with the crack trade.

Now of course these were just rumors, and I was in no position to do anything about them. But if I knew a little, I have to think the Chapel Hill Carrboro Board of Education knew a lot more. It's hard to believe that this man, now known for shady real estate deals and thought to be living the life of a fugitive drug kingpin on the lam, was responsible for legally advising our school system. That concerns me. I always wondered why the school board did not take action to remove this questionable character. In hindsight I can now say they absolutely should have done something, and that they may have been putting our schools at risk by continuing to work with him for many years.

So McCormick is gone, and hopefully we will never see his face in Chapel Hill again. But what can we learn from this? Personally, I think this is a sign that we should be more vigilant about ethics in our public institutions. As southerners (or maybe just as nice people), we tend to want to be polite and look the other way. But when things smell fishy, it's often for a reason.

Hopefully we've evolved from these bad old days of good old boys and back rooms deals: "Back then, a man could get ahead by talking smooth and winking at regulations, and the business wasn't sophisticated enough for anyone to do anything about it." - Independent Weekly: News: Orange: In pursuit of John McCormick

We're not advancing much if we have to trample our own principles to accomplish our goals. Let's hold our public institutions and local leaders to a higher standard.




Please let me be absolutely clear at the outset: I am offering no defense of McCormick (especially if he actually did the things of which he stands accused).

But several things about your post concern me. First, I'm not sure exactly what a "slum lord" is. Is there a definition, or is it another of those things that we just know when we see one? Is it somehow different from the owner of low-income housing?

Of far greater concern is your apparent willingness to see someone removed from a public position because of "rumors that he was involved in the crack trade." I have more or less daily contact with people who are officially accused of similar behavior and - in all the years McCormick was here - I have never once heard his name mentioned in that connection; which, of course, proves nothing about the reality of the rumors. But they are only rumors.

I would have thought - indeed, desperately wished - that if society learned nothing else from the Duke Lacrosse fiasco it might have learned to be hesitant to equate guilt with accusations, far less with rumors. He may, indeed, be "living the life of a fugitive drug kingpin on the lam" but that, too, is still nothing more than rumor.

All that having been said, I do whole-heartedly endorse what I take to be your main point: that we should be "more vigilant about ethics in our public institutions." Let's just also be very picky about the quantum of proof that satisfies us (in the courtroom or on the street) before we're willing to throw the rope over the nearest tree limb.


I don't disagree, Barry. Per the Independent article:

And perhaps most crucial about the story of John G. McCormick ... is that it was entirely preventable. The Independent has discovered that McCormick was involved in shady dealings as early as 1993 that caught state regulators' attention; one particular case in 1995 cost Tate his real estate license and compelled the state Real Estate Commission to ask the N.C. State Bar to investigate McCormick. But the Bar did virtually nothing.

I'm not calling for witch hunts, but for us to be a little less polite when we see something that looks wrong. I can think of some recent examples where people's response to the appearance of wrong-doing was just to give folks the benefit of the doubt. But how many times can we look the other way before we are complicit in problems that are right in front of our faces?

With all of the good lawyers in this town has anyone stepped up to help the poor couple that Tate and Mc Cormick ripped off as reported in last week's Indy?
JAcquie Gist

I share Barry's concerns and observations and am glad that he so eloquently expressed them so that I didn't have to take the time to.

But the Bar did virtually nothing

I know the school system is many people's favorite punching bag, but if the Bar decided to take no action, then I am not sure on what basis the school system had to dismiss McCormick. Also, what information was public and when? Did those who suspected that McCormick might have been acting in an unethical or illegal manner make their case to the school system at the time? Did the school system actually know about any of this? Did the Bar notify the school system or were they obligated under whatever finding they made at the time?

Hindsight is 20/20.


Again, I am not saying he should have been fired, I don't know enough facts about it. But I do know that he did a lot more wrong than was discussed in the Independent. I think it merited discussion and probably investigation.


This is not one of your better posts, and I'm surprized that someone like you would fall for the dangling carrot of speculation. Yes, the McCormick story is inriquing, but not so intriquing that I'd want to guess at things where there is no clear information.

That kind of pseudo-reasoning can really be destructive.

John A

I think it merited discussion and probably investigation.

If the school system knew about it, then I agree it should have been looked into, but this does not appear to be the case. We don't know if they did look into it, because it sounds like there were conflicting stories, at least from the Bar's POV. Did you or are you aware that anyone else called up a school board member or administrator and expressed concern the McCormick was allegedly a slum lord?

If McCormick was performing satisfactorily for the school system and they had no knowledge of this situation, which appears to be the case, then I disagree with the speculation. The comments from the Bar lead me to believe that it was kept confidential by the Bar and I don't recall reading in the story when or how this couple's plight with regards to McCormick's involvement was disclosed.

I do have some opinions on better oversight of escrow accounts, etc., but will save for another day/thread.

Yes Mark, I do know people that contacted school board members about McCormick's extralegal activities. Unfortunately, I can't talk about specific individuals involved, which is part of the whole problem.

Thanks Ruby, that was not clear to me in previous posts.

I am sorry to say that the problems with John McCormick were indeed well-known long before his disappearance. It is not a matter of 20/20 hindsight.

In any case, the fact that he was not drummed out of the legal community earlier suggests that the State Bar's internal controls are inadequate. The purpose of the Bar is to prevent exactly the kind of scenario that played out in McCormick's office.

Barry, while you rightly point out that we should "be hesitant to equate accusations with guilt," the fact is that many aspects of McCormick's wrongdoing are self-evident. We can't say that he is guilty of any crime (yet). But his actions speak for themselves.

And it is an undisputed fact that McCormick's tenants were dealing crack cocaine out of his apartments at the end of Sykes Street; there is also no doubt that he was well aware of the situation. As I understand it, the person who was the main source of the problem was a tenant who was specifically chosen by John to run the place.

And as long as we are speaking of the end of Sykes Street, you should go down to the end of that street and look at the apartments there. Not to be too smart about the matter, Barry, but that trip will certainly correct the problem that you are "not sure exactly what a 'slum lord' is."

I'm not trying to bring national politics into this, but a question. Is this the sort of reform that Edwards talked about last time concerning bad lawyers? That the BAR should act more like the AMA does to strip licenses?

disclaimer: not a lawyer.

otherwise, my disclaimer would have been MUCH longer!!!

Mark and Ruby:

If you know something then come out and say it. Otherwise, why make this post if we can't discuss the particulars because they are based on half-truths?


On another note: anyone care to talk about the 5 males from North Orange charged with 2 rapes?

I didn't think so.

John A

John, I think I have stoppped short of the realm of speculation and half-truths in my post above. I tried to address my comments to the things that I know to be facts. I think those facts point strongly to a particular conclusion. But if some folks want to give John the benefit of the doubt, then that is their perogative. I don't think I can be so generous in formulating my own opinion of the man - and I am not just referring to his well-documented fraud perpetrated against Shahla Rezvani and D. R. Horton homebuilders.

The fact is, as you well know, that there are times when a person's misdeeds are self-evident despite the fact that they are hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. That McCormick has been convicted of little or no wrongdoing thus far does not make him innocent - either with respect to defrauding some of his own business associates or anything else.

Despite what Barry says above, in my personal opinion, John McCormick was involved in some non-trivial way in the crack cocaine trade in the Northside neighborhood in Chapel Hill. My opinion is based on an observation of his real estate dealings, his tenants, and my conversations with Northside residents and Chapel Hill police officers. I can't say that I could prove that beyond a reasonable doubt, but I can say that my opinion is one that is based upon reason rather than inuendo. And I bet you won't see any cops contradict me on this point.

McCormick's rapid departure from Chapel Hill was, to me, anything but shocking. I hate to say all of the above because I think that John McCormick has a lovely family who are some marvelous people in our community. I also think that there was an expansive and perfectly legitimate aspect to his legal practice and that, by and large, his business associates knew nothing about this aspect of John. But McCormick's name has long, long provoked some serious eye-rolling among some quarters of the Chapel Hill legal community.

Thank you Mark for fleshing out of this issue. Now we're getting somewhere.

John A

From the wires:

John Gregory McCormick, a missing Chapel Hill man accused of embezzling over $1 million from clients, was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona Friday morning, Attorney General Roy Cooper announced.

Thank you, Fred! I consider it good news both that he's not dead and that he's in custody and can now be held accountable in a court of law.

(Disclaimer: not a lawyer, don't play one on TV.)

It might be a contortion of tort law or the same weird mix of criminal and civil law that you see in wrongful death suits, but some of the characterizations here might, conceivably, fall into the realm of libel -- IF they are false. McCormack could sue for defamation, but unless he could prove both falsehood and harm, he'd lose. Truth is an absolute defense to libel suits; and there's the added issue of whether the person libeled is a public figure, which -- it could be argued -- McCormack made himself when he took off if not before.

We do want to be responsible about tossing gossip into public discussions without factual basis, but there are protections for "whistle blowers" who lose patience with scoundrels when normal channels of oversight are not functioning well.

Here is an interesting quote from WRAl's recent story on this: "How do you disappear with $1 million without a trace?" he [a Chapel Hill attorney] said. "I'm not so sure he took it. I feel he robbed Peter to pay Paul to take care of some of the mistakes that he and his office had made."

Which is a point of view that is perhaps reinforced by the location of McCormick's arrest: According to WRAL, McCormick was arrested at midnight while sitting with two other men on a park bench in Phoenix.

And the N&O elaborates: "McCormick's address on police paperwork is listed as 'transient,' and [Phoenix Police Spokesman] Ragsdale said no other information was available."

Here is a link to some great info about Online Defamation Law from a trusted non-profit the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Do blogs have the same constitutional protections as mainstream media?

Yes. The US Supreme Court has said that "in the context of defamation law, the rights of the institutional media are no greater and no less than those enjoyed by other individuals and organizations engaged in the same activities."

More to the point, Brian, it cannot be defamation to express one's own genuinely held opinion. In other words, what I said a few months ago was clearly set forth as my opinion - not as an absolute assertion of fact. Maybe I am wrong about McCormick, but I don't think so.

Don't have your specific remarks in front of me, Mark, but:

Opinion on issues is protected, but I believe it's possible to slip into libel (which applies to publication of something defamatory) if, in publicly expressing an opinion, you say something false about a person in such a way as to - demonstrably - harm him or her.

For example, you might say "my opinion is that Mr. Soandso is a thief and a murderer," you've still opened yourself up to a possible charge of libeling Mr. S. If he thens sues you, and you can show he stole and committed murder, that defense wins you the case. If he's not a murderer and a thief, and he can prove that he's lost work, his health, a family, his ability to get credit, or other kinds of harm as a direct result of what you said publicly about him, he wins the case.

There's an added dimension if Mr. S. is a public figure (which is defined in some specific ways) in that he has to prove, in addition, that you knew what you said wasn't true and went ahead anyway.

I wasn't admonishing anyone here but rather reminding all that truth is the best defense against charges of defamation.

(Thank you, Ruth Walden and Cathy Packer, who teach media law at UNC-CH's journalism school.)

(Mark, know you're a lawyer and already knew all that down to the fine print, chapter and verse; but it's not always clear to the rest of us what can be said and what can get one in trouble in situations like this. People tend to cry "libel! slander!" as easily as they might accuse someone of rudeness or lack of sensitivity.)

Fair enough. Just to be clear, the statement from a couple of months ago that I was referring to is further up in this thread, dated 5/27/2007.

Mark: then the worst thing you say here on this website is, then, "involved in some non-trivial way in the crack cocaine trade." Would like to see anyone try to parse "in some non-trivial way" if McCormack did decide to challenge such a statement in court!

Meanwhile, the story is still sadly intriguing -- where did he go between Duke Forest and Phoenix? Somehow Midland TX seems much less dramatic than Spain (with all due respect....).

And also meanwhile, it's still fair to ask whether some part of the system failed if he remained responsible to the school board while eyebrows were being more-than-raised and there now seems to be a lot "everyone" knew, including the Bar.

I think the State Bar is the party that we should be asking questions about. I am sure there are many people at the State Bar who work hard on problems like this, but even so . . .

The N&O says that the forensic accounting work on this situation was the most expensive such investigation that the State Bar has had to face. And there is no telling how much money may be claimed against the State Bar's Client Security Fund as restitution. And those of us who hold active law licenses are the ones who have to pay in to that Client Security Fund.

Hopefully at least some of the missing money can still be recovered, although I am not actually optimistic about that.


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