This story is part one in a two-part investigative series. The second part will examine the culture in the Parking and Transportation Services Department and will be published later this week.
A parking attendant has alleged that Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, the University’s primary financial and administrative officer, used a racial slur after hitting her with his car.
The parking attendant, Shelvia Underwood of Raleigh-based McLaurin Parking and Transportation, claims that Trask hit her with with his vehicle Aug. 30, 2014, before a Duke football game against Elon University, and called her a “stupid n*****” as he drove off. Weeks later, Underwood received an apology note signed by Trask after she filed a police report with the Duke University Police Department.
“Dear Ms. Underwood,
I very much regret the incident before the Elon football game. I should have been more patient and I apologize,” the signed note reads.
Trask initially told The Chronicle that he categorically denied hitting Underwood with his car and using a racial slur. When presented by The Chronicle with the apology note, he acknowledged hitting her unintentionally but again denied using the slur.
Both Trask and Underwood have hired attorneys—Dhamian Blue of Blue Stephens and Fellers, Trinity ‘00 and Law School ‘03, and Donald Huggins of Hairston Lane PA, respectively.
Underwood said that before the Elon game, she was directing traffic away from Chapel Drive near the traffic circle that connects Campus Drive, Flowers Drive, Chapel Drive and Wannamaker Drive.
“It was the night of the Elon game, so of course it was busy—everyone wanted to go to the Chapel, and no one could go to the Chapel, according to the rules that have been given,” she said.
After the game had already started, Underwood said Trask approached in his silver Porsche while she was speaking with a pedestrian. Underwood said that in order to help the pedestrian, she stopped Trask. She added that she did not realize who Trask was because she was a contract employee.
As Underwood started to turn around to address Trask, he hit her with his car, she said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“As I turn back around, I take a step and this car has hit me. My hands are on the hood, then I hit the ground,” Underwood said.
Underwood got off the ground, then said she shouted at Trask, “Really sir, really? You’re in that much of a hurry that you hit me with your car?”
Underwood said she told Trask that the road was closed unless he had a parking pass. Rather than initially showing Underwood a pass, Trask responded by banging on the steering wheel and saying, “This road is not closed” twice, Underwood said. Underwood explained that Trask then held up two parking passes—which she said was “all he needed in the first place” to be allowed to go through.
As Trask drove off, Underwood said he called her a “dumb, dumb stupid n*****.”
Huggins, Underwood’s lawyer, declined to comment.
When initially asked about the incident by The Chronicle, Trask categorically denied hitting Underwood with his vehicle. After he was presented with a picture of his written apology note via email, however, he explained that he had unintentionally hit Underwood. Trask wrote in a statement emailed to The Chronicle that witnesses did not overhear him using a racial slur “quite simply because I didn’t say it. It is a complete fabrication.”
The full statement can be viewed here:
“As I was driving to the home football game against Elon in August 2014, I was stopped in the traffic circle (between Flowers and Chapel Drives) by a parking attendant I did not recognize, who gruffly said ‘this road is closed.’ I told her I park on the quad, and have every day for almost 20 years. She told me to go park somewhere else. My regular parking pass, which is good in all spaces on campus at all times, was hanging from my rear view mirror.
There was a special all access pass for the Elon game in the corner of the windshield. I pointed to that and thought she was satisfied. She stepped away, but after I started moving (maybe five feet) she stepped back in front of the car. I slammed on the brakes and her hand ended up on my left fender. I did not intentionally hit her. By then I was extremely frustrated and said ‘how many permits do I need to show you?’ in a somewhat heated voice. I regret that I lost my patience and that’s what my note of apology was about.
I learned several days later that Ms. Underwood had filed a complaint and claimed I had said something else. Her allegations were separately and independently investigated by the Duke Police and the Office of Institutional Equity, both of whom interviewed all witnesses. None of them heard me saying what she claimed I said, quite simply because I didn’t say it. It is a complete fabrication.
I had assumed this was resolved more than a year ago until I received a letter last November from a Raleigh attorney threatening to sue me (not clear for what) unless I paid her an unspecified sum. I declined to do so then and do not intend to do so now.”
In an email to President Richard Brodhead Jan. 14, 2016, Renee Adkins, who served as special events manager for PTS from 2003 until January 2015, described the allegations against Trask in detail as part of a larger narrative about the culture of “racism, harassment, retaliation and bullying” in PTS.
Brodhead reiterated in an email to The Chronicle that police and OIE investigations found no evidence to corroborate the use of a racial slur.
“There is no question that Dr. Trask behaved intemperately on this occasion, and he was right to offer an apology,” Brodhead wrote. “Dr. Trask has been an extraordinary servant of this university for over 20 years, and no one who works with him closely would find it believable that he would use such language.”
Witnesses weigh in
The Chronicle did not speak to direct witnesses who could fully confirm either Underwood’s story or Trask’s story, but several of Underwood’s co-workers corroborated parts of her account. One co-worker, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, was stationed near Underwood and recounted what happened when Trask approached Chapel Drive.
“He was going faster than he should have been, and kind of saw me and looked the other way,” the co-worker said. “I had my hand up trying to get him to stop or at least slow down.”
After Underwood stopped Trask, the co-worker was still busy with other traffic and could not exactly hear the exchange between the pair, the co-worker explained. The co-worker did see what happened as Trask drove away from the scene.
“She was hopping on one foot back out of the way of the front of the vehicle. And then it took off—there was no, ‘Sorry ma’am,’ or anything like that. As soon as she cleared the front of the vehicle, he was gone,” the co-worker said.
The co-worker also said that after Trask left the scene, Underwood asked, “Did you hear what he called me?” The co-worker added that there were no parking passes visible on Trask’s car.
Adkins, who worked at Duke for 18 years, explained that in her experience overseeing special event parking, Trask usually did not have his parking passes, and she told employees to look out for him for that reason.
“Over 99.5 percent of the time, his passes were never in view and he would need to reach down somewhere in his vehicle to retrieve them if he was stopped,” Adkins wrote in an email.
Jazzy Holloway, a family friend of Underwood’s who said she was on her way to the game with her kids walking toward the stadium, said she also saw part of the incident. After she bent down to tie her son’s shoes, Holloway said she saw Underwood on top of Trask’s car and heard her say, “Really, sir?” after she slid off the car.
In addition to seeing Trask bang on his steering wheel, Holloway said she heard him use a racial slur.
“I heard him say ‘Stupid n*****,’” Holloway said.
Marian Brown, former lead transit supervisor for PTS and a PTS employee for 23 years, said on the day of the Elon game she was in the command post, where she could hear reports from all employees in the field. She noted that Sam Veraldi, former director of PTS, was also present in the command post when Underwood reported that Trask hit her on the radio.
“I turned up the mic, and said ‘Um, 10-9, could you repeat that message?’ [Underwood] said it again. When she repeated it, I turned the mic up and was watching everyone go, ‘What!’ Everyone started making calls,” Brown said.
Brown noted that after Underwood reported being hit on the radio, Adkins immediately got on her golf cart and drove to the scene of the incident.
Veraldi did not return multiple requests for comment.
Adkins explained that she placed Underwood near Chapel Drive because she had asked McLaurin for one of its best employees who was capable of handling such a busy area.
In a Feb. 5 letter to Huggins that was obtained by The Chronicle, Trask’s lawyer, Blue, reiterates that the situation was fully investigated by OIE and states that Underwood stepped in front of Trask’s moving vehicle.
According to the letter, OIE spoke to Trask’s wife, Julie Trask, in the process of producing its report. Julie Trask declined to comment to The Chronicle. However, The Chronicle spoke to Holloway, who OIE did not interview.
Blue explains in the letter that Underwood said she has been hit by cars before, “which indicates a routine practice of placing herself in harm’s way,” and writes that Julie Trask, who was in the car with Tallman Trask, agreed with Tallman Trask’s version of events.
Ben Reese, vice president for institutional equity, and Cynthia Clinton, director of harassment and discrimination prevention and compliance for OIE, declined to comment.
Before The Chronicle obtained the letter to Huggins that makes reference to the OIE report, administrators did not reference the report in response to multiple requests for information about the incident.
After The Chronicle reviewed the letter and requested a copy of the OIE report Saturday, Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, noted that OIE reports are confidential personnel records and that the University would respond to the request Monday.
‘I wanted a sincere apology’
Underwood and Trask also have different recollections of what happened after he hit her with his car.
Two days after the incident, Underwood said she went to the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center because she was having pain in her arm. She said she was diagnosed with a muscle contusion and possible fractured elbow. Underwood provided a copy of the medical report documenting the hospital visit and diagnosis to The Chronicle.
Although Underwood said she wanted to file a police report with DUPD immediately after the incident, she explained that her immediate supervisor, Meredith McLaurin, told her that she would file a police report on Underwood’s behalf. However, McLaurin told Underwood the next day that Underwood would have to file the report herself, Underwood said. McLaurin declined to comment.
Underwood said that after she went to the hospital, she received a call from DUPD investigator Arthur Holland asking that she call him. She returned the call the next day and requested a police report for the incident.
The two agreed to meet the following day, four days after Trask hit Underwood, and Underwood explained her side of the story during the meeting. Holland told Underwood that she would need to return the next day to sign the report and provide a copy of her hospital medical records. Underwood added that she agreed to do what Holland asked.
Holland did not return a request for comment.
Later that day, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, Underwood said she received a call from Steve McLaurin, the owner of McLaurin Parking and Transportation.
“When I see Steve is calling, I know something is up—I’ve worked for McLaurin’s for seven years and had never received a call from him,” Underwood said.
McLaurin told Underwood that because she was not seriously injured and Duke was inquiring about how he was going to handle the situation, “‘a sincere apology [from Trask] should cover it,’” Underwood said. Explaining that she was fearful of losing her job if she filed a lawsuit, Underwood said she told McLaurin that if she received a sincere apology, she would not proceed further.
McLaurin said that his company has been contracted by the University for six seasons, with approximately 30 employees working during football season. He also noted that since Underwood received an apology from Trask, he believed the situation was resolved, and did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.
When Underwood returned to meet with Holland the following day, he also asked about the agreement to drop the matter if Trask issued a sincere apology, and Underwood reiterated what she told McLaurin, Underwood said.
When Underwood asked for a copy of the report she had filed, however, DUPD declined to provide it, claiming that it was implementing a new system, she said. Only after Underwood told DUPD that she had talked to a Raleigh Police Department lieutenant who said that they are required to provide a copy of the report to the complainant did DUPD provide the report.
A copy of the report that was provided to Underwood was obtained by The Chronicle and does not include Trask’s name, information about his vehicle or that he hit Underwood. It states that the incident involved Underwood and “concerned behavior.”
When asked about the police report by The Chronicle, DUPD Chief of Police John Dailey noted in an email that the copy provided to Underwood was only the first page of the complete report. He wrote that it is filled out correctly, and because it is not a public record by state code and DUPD is a private agency, DUPD is not required to provide full copies of reports to those who bring complaints. Dailey declined to provide the full report when it was requested by The Chronicle.
Sixteen days later, Sept. 20, 2014, three weeks after the initial incident, Underwood was working again at her usual post before the Duke-Tulane football game when she received the apology she had requested from Trask.
“At the same location, a tall guy comes up behind me and says, ‘Um, I don’t know exactly what happened out here, but whatever, here you go.’ And he hands me a card,” Underwood alleged.
Adkins later identified the man as Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh.
“Are you kidding me?” Underwood said. “I wanted a sincere apology, and this isn’t even close to it.”
Cavanaugh did not reply to multiple requests for comment about his alleged role in delivering Trask’s note to Underwood.
Since receiving the apology note from Trask, who oversees Cavanaugh and PTS, Underwood has been working to take legal action against Trask.
Correction: This article was updated to clarify that Adkins was the special events manager, not the director. The Chronicle regrets the error.