Modified Fri, Jan 25, 2013 08:30 AM
By Anne Blythe – firstname.lastname@example.org
RALEIGH — A Wake County judge sent a message Thursday to state investigators probing possible sports-agent activity in connection with the UNC-Chapel Hill football program.
Any search warrants in Wake County that investigators have asked to be shielded from public scrutiny will be unsealed in 45 days, Judge Donald Stephens said.
“I’m well aware this is an investigation that’s extremely complicated,” Stephens said from the bench. “It’s been going on two and a half years. It’s about to be concluded.”
Without disclosing what was in three sealed documents in Wake County, Stephens acknowledged that they included details that would be of much interest to the public.
Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings went before Stephens on Thursday to ask the judge to keep the contents of public warrants related to the investigation under seal. He said public disclosure of the material could jeopardize the investigation at a sensitive time.
Amanda Martin, a lawyer representing media organizations fighting the seal, asked whether such “secrecy in a system that values openness” was in the public’s interest.
Stephens said his ruling to keep the documents sealed for 45 more days was his attempt to reconcile two interests – the public’s right to a complete and thorough investigation, and the protection of the right to a fair trial of any potential defendants in a criminal case – while also acknowledging that state law defines such documents as public records.
Since July 2010, agents with the Secretary of State’s Office have been looking into the possibility that sports agents provided UNC football players improper benefits. State law prohibits agents seeking to sign up athletes from providing anything of value to the players unless they have signed contracts.
The state probe came on the heels of an NCAA investigation that led to sanctions and to players being kicked off the team.
The NCAA launched an investigation in June 2010 into the possibility that players received improper benefits from agents.
That investigation led to further allegations of academic misconduct among players.
Since then, Butch Davis resigned as the football coach. Dick Baddour announced his resignation as athletics director sooner than he had planned. Chancellor Holden Thorp announced that he will step down this summer after a scandal involving a top fundraiser and academic fraud found in the African-American studies department.
Previous warrants have provided a glimpse of the investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office, which is tasked with the oversight of agents.
In March 2011, a warrant executed by the Secretary of State’s Office alleged that Gary Wichard, a sports agent who has since died, paid former Tar Heel football player Marvin Austin to travel to California.
The warrant also stated that Wichard said he and Austin had several phone conversations, beginning with contact Wichard initiated in January 2009. According to state law, an agent must be registered in the state to initiate contact with an athlete. Wichard’s registration in North Carolina expired Dec. 31, 1998, and had not been renewed, according to the warrant.
The NFL Players Association suspended Wichard’s contract adviser status in December 2010 for nine months for having impermissible communications with Austin.
Wichard died in March 2011.
UNC-CH dismissed Austin from the team for the 2010 season for receiving benefits that Baddour estimated at $10,000 to $13,000. The warrant contended that Austin received benefits before the 2009 season, when he played for the Tar Heels as a junior.
A violation of the state’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act is a Class I felony, carrying a maximum prison sentence of 15 months. A civil penalty of as much as $25,000 also can be assessed.
In the hearing Wednesday in Wake County Superior Court, Stephens revealed that two warrants related to the secretary of state’s case had been sealed since October, and at least one warrant in Georgia linked to the investigation is under seal.