Media outlets sue for UNC records

The university cites a student privacy law in shielding records about a football probe.

Staff writerOctober 29, 2010 

  • The story so far

    On July 12 and 13, NCAA investigators interviewed an undisclosed number of football players at UNC, including senior defensive tackle Marvin Austin and senior wide receiver Greg Little about allegations they had received improper benefits from sports agents.

    Since then, the N.C. Secretary of State's office has started investigating possible violations of agent-regulating laws.

    On Aug. 26, UNC announced that the NCAA investigation into possible improper conduct with agents might have uncovered potential academic fraud as well. The second prong of the probe involves a tutor who also has worked with the son of UNC head football coach Butch Davis.

  • "The University is 100 percent committed to complying with our obligations under public records laws. We have been responsive to the media and to the exceptionally large number of records requests they've submitted. We've devoted an unprecedented level of personnel and resources to processing and complying with the requests. We met with The News & Observer about their concerns and felt like we were being responsive. So I'm disappointed by the lawsuit. We recognize the media's legitimate interest in the football story, but we can't ignore federal and state law with regard to confidential student and personnel records."

    UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp

    "We don't make judgments about who wants private student information or why. Our duty is to apply the law consistently and correctly. We provide the records we're allowed to share under federal privacy law, and withhold the records that those laws deem private. The University is entrusted with lots of confidential information about our students. They and their families expect us to hold that information in confidence because it's required by federal law and because it's the right thing to do. A football player has the same basic privacy rights as any student on campus."

    Leslie Strohm, UNC-CH Vice Chancellor and General Counsel

The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and other media organizations sued top UNC-Chapel Hill officials Thursday in an attempt to get records related to the two-pronged NCAA investigation of the football program.

The suit represents a collision between two legal arguments - while universities in North Carolina and elsewhere argue that federal student privacy laws prohibit them from releasing certain records, media organizations say they are overstepping their legal bounds to keep from disclosing particular documents.

The N&O and other plaintiffs believe the records being sought are public under North Carolina law, which states that records, documents and other information generated by state agencies and institutions such as UNC-CH should be - with limited exceptions - made public.

In the past week, national media associations have written letters to Congress and adopted resolutions citing concerns over the use of the student privacy law to withhold public documents.

"I think these issues are arising more frequently and we probably need to be on the record that it's bad business and we oppose it," Mac McKerral, former Society of Professional Journalists president and head of the organization's resolutions committee, said in a prepared statement about an Oct. 13 resolution.

In the case of UNC, officials have declined for months to turn over many documents related to the investigations into academic misconduct by football players and ties between former assistant head football coach John Blake and NFL agents, according to the suit.

"There is evidence here of serious violations - UNC players accepting benefits from agents and academic misconduct," said John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer. "UNC has said it wants to get to the bottom of these problems in its football program. The best way to do that is to release these records. Without that, there will continue to be a cloud of doubt about UNC's investigation and whether the university really got to the bottom of the wrongdoing."

Among the records being sought by The News & Observer and others, are:

Phone numbers from bills of telephones issued to and used by Richard Baddour, UNC-CH athletics director; Butch Davis, UNC head coach; and, Blake, the former assistant coach and chief recruiter who resigned under fire amid the probe.

Names, employment dates and salaries of all individuals employed as tutors and or mentors for UNC-CH athletes since January 2007, including any documents mentioning Jennifer Wiley, the former tutor and a focus of the probe.

Any parking tickets issued by UNC-CH to 11 players.

Any documents or records of any investigation conducted by the university related to any misconduct by a UNC-CH football coach, any football players, any sports agents, any boosters and any academic tutors.

And the names of individuals and organizations that provided improper benefits to any UNC football players.

University officials have maintained that many of the records being sought are private, citing federal laws put in place years ago to prevent the public disclosure of student grades and other private records.

"The university is entrusted with lots of confidential information about our students," Leslie Strohm, UNC-CH vice chancellor and general counsel, said in a statement. "They and their families expect us to hold that information in confidence because it's required by federal law and because it's the right thing to do. A football player has the same basic privacy rights as any student on campus."

Chancellor Holden Thorp, one of four UNC-CH officials named in the suit, said he was disappointed. In a statement, Thorp noted that additional staff had been hired to help review and respond to public records requests related to the issue. One public records officer had spent more than 600 hours over the past three and a half months working to fill those requests, according to the statement including comments from Strohm and Thorp.

"The university is 100 percent committed to complying with our obligations under public records laws," Thorp said in his statement. "We recognize the media's legitimate interest in the football story, but we can't ignore federal and state law with regard to confidential student and personnel records."

The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, both McClatchy newspapers, joined with the DTH Media Corp., which publishes the UNC-CH student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel; News 14 Carolina, a cable TV station operated by Time Warner Entertainment-Advance/Newhouse Partnership; WTVD Television; Capitol Broadcasting; The Associated Press; and, Media General Operations.

The suit names Thorp, Baddour, Davis and Jeff McCracken, head of the UNC-CH public safety department.

Baddour said Thursday that he, too, was disappointed by the suit, that he is willing to turn over any of his business phone records. He also added that despite the problems revealed about the football program and Blake, he stands behind Davis as head coach.

"I felt like when we hired him, he was a tremendous fit," Baddour said Thursday. "He is absolutely the right person for this job and to make the necessary fixes."

NCAA investigators have been looking at the UNC football program since this summer.

Initially the probe focused on whether players had received improper benefits from agents. But the inquiry was expanded to include possible academic violations involving a tutor.

In all, 14 players have missed some or all of the season.

Three players are no longer eligible to play in college: Marvin Austin, Greg Little and Robert Quinn, all projected to be selected in next spring's NFL draft. Last week, the NCAA said that Little and Quinn had lied to its investigators and that the players took trips, jewelry and more worth a combined $10,000. The NCAA banned them from college play after receiving reports from UNC.

UNC said Austin accepted more than $10,000 in improper benefits and kicked him out of the program without submitting information about him to the NCAA.

Last Friday, after an earlier threat of lawsuit, UNC released heavily redacted documents that provided some insight into benefits being provided by agents to players, a practice forbidden by the NCAA. The agents, according to the documents, are accused of securing hotel rooms for players and providing wristbands that gave them access to a South Florida pool party.

Until the documents were released, the NCAA and UNC had declined to say who provided the benefits. UNC switched course after continued efforts by The N&O and the Observer to force their release.

In the documents, Chris Hawkins, a former UNC-CH player, was described as a "runner," or someone who introduces players to agents. Todd Stewart, who is believed to be from Washington, D.C., was described in one of the NCAA violation letters as a prospective agent because of "self-identified ties with a financial advising firm" and as someone who booked hotel rooms for players.

Also identified was Michael Katz, director of marketing and client services for Rosenhaus Sports, which has the largest number of NFL clients. Two of the NCAA violation letters said Katz provided the wristbands that granted access to a pool party. The documents did not say more about that, including specifically whether that action triggers a violation. Previous reports have shown Austin and Little at a South Florida pool party.

On Thursday, the university released documents that identified a jeweler in South Florida accused of providing one player with diamond "bling."

The NCAA has refused to release records on the agents, saying it doesn't have jurisdiction over them. The N.C. Secretary of State's office enforces a state agent-registration law, and the state agency has acknowledged opening a criminal probe that could lead to felony charges.

Staff writer Ken Tysiac contributed to this report.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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