Unsealed warrants show sports agents wooing college students with cash, favors

ablythe@newsobserver.com, dkane@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2013 

  • The story so far

    A public tweet about partying in Miami Beach by star UNC defensive lineman Marvin Austin in May 2010 launched an NCAA investigation that found impermissible payments, jewelry and other perks by agents and their go-betweens, or runners, to football players, as well as improper academic and financial help by a highly-regarded tutor, Jennifer Wiley.

    The investigation led to a UNC bowl ban, served this past season, a loss of 15 scholarships over three seasons, three years’ probation and a $50,000 fine. The university also had to vacate all victories from the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

    Seven football players were kicked off the team for the 2010 season, including Austin, while seven others served at least a one-game suspension. Wiley, who did not cooperate with the investigation, was given a letter of disassociation to stay away from UNC. She has never spoken about her role in the case.

    The improper agent activity prompted an investigation by the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office, which registers agents and regulates their activity. The search warrants made public Monday represent the first detailed look at that probe.

A new round of details in the three-year-old UNC athletics scandal were released Monday, revealing the damning image of a star UNC football player accepting a FedEx envelope filled with $2,000 in cash.

Marvin Austin, the 2010 UNC football star whose tweets about partying in Miami launched the NCAA probe that resulted in sanctions, told special agents with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office that he received the cash from a sports agent while enrolled as a student, according to search warrants unsealed Monday in Wake County Superior Court.

The warrants, which focus on Terry Shawn Watson, a sports agent based in the Atlanta area, offer a broad-brush look into the world of sports agents and their use of go-betweens to woo top professional prospects to their client lists.

Efforts to reach Watson on Monday were unsuccessful. UNC-CH officials declined to comment on details in the documents.

“We saw the search warrants for the first time today and are reviewing them,” Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletics director since November 2011, said in a statement. “It is not appropriate for anyone at the university to comment on the specifics of the Secretary of State’s investigation of agent activity.”

NCAA officials also declined to comment, saying they cannot discuss current, pending or potential investigations.

Watson’s name came up many times as NCAA investigators conducted their probe into the UNC football program, according to documents obtained by The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and other media organizations that filed a public records lawsuit against the university.

In NCAA interviews in 2010, Austin and teammates Greg Little, Kendrick Burney and Charles Brown all told investigators they met Watson.

“I met him, uh, he contacted me via phone and we went out to eat and we talked or whatever,” Austin told NCAA investigators. “I paid for my meal. And, uh, that was really, really it.”

Those transcripts from the NCAA investigation show that Austin said he talked with Watson “a couple” of times after that, but only about Brandon Spikes, a player the sports agent had signed.

‘Gave me money’

But Austin offered a slightly different picture to special agents with the Secretary of State who interviewed him on several occasions in 2010 and 2011.

A.H. Jones, a special agent with the Secretary of State, said in an Oct. 23 search warrant application that Austin told her: “Terry Watson was a guy who gave me money.”

Austin said that Willie Barley, a go-between in Miami, facilitated the sending of a FedEx package with $2,000 inside and a bogus name on the outside to the Chapel Hill home where Austin lived during his college years.

When asked whether a money order or check arrived, Jones contends that Austin said: “No, it was green backs,” “cash.”

The package, according to investigators, arrived on May 4, 2010, the same month that Austin and other UNC players popped up at a pool party attended by NFL players in Miami.

When Austin was dismissed from the UNC team during the 2010 season, UNC officials estimated he had received improper benefits amounting to between $10,000 and $13,000. It was unclear on Monday whether the cash payment highlighted in the Secretary of State warrants are part of that sum.

Before Austin, a defensive star at UNC, was drafted by the New York Giants, agents, financial advisers and other businessmen had swarmed around him as an elite athlete who had great professional prospects.

The Secretary of State office’s interviews with Austin also led investigators to Patrick Jones, a longtime friend of Watson’s and another go-between “who confessed to sending FedEx packages containing cash to student athletes at the request of Watson,” A.H. Jones stated in her search warrant application.

“He stated the money was sent to the students to entice them into signing a contract with Watson,” the search warrant documents state. “Jones stated that this was the only way Watson could compete with the bigger athlete agents and their companies.”

Watson lists as one of his clients Cortland Finnegan, an NFL player who signed a five-year, $50 million contract with the St. Louis Rams.

Cash to other athletes

The investigator with the Secretary of State’s office also stated that Patrick Jones said “packages containing cash had been sent to many other student athletes at schools other than UNC-CH. He could not recall how many packages he had sent to North Carolina student athletes, but he did know that others had received cash.”

The documents contend that agents uncovered texts between Watson and other college athletes, including some to Chris Culliver, a Garner High School standout who played college football at the University of South Carolina and now plays as a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers.

“Some of the text messages identified between Watson and various student-athletes contained references to what we believe are illegal wire transfers into bank accounts and packages to sent to deliver payments,” Jones stated in a Jan. 10 search warrant document.

Records collected by special agents in the Secretary of State probe show that a FedEx package was sent to an address where Jennifer Wiley, the UNC tutor identified as providing extra help to student-athletes, once lived. But it was unclear whether she lived at the address at the time or knew anything about the package. Wiley, according to records, paid for former UNC football player Little’s parking tickets and an airline flight.

The Miami trip

Watson, according to the warrants, came to Chapel Hill in April 2010 and met with Austin, five months after phone contact between the two.

The two met at a steakhouse on U.S. 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham, according to the documents, and Austin said Watson handed him cash for the dinner.

On Memorial Day weekend in 2010, the Secretary of State search warrants state, Watson and Barley, the go-between, paid for hotel accommodations at the Doubletree Surfcomber in Miami Beach, Fla., for UNC players Robert Quinn and Jordan Nix.

The documents also state that Quinn, Nix, Michael McAdoo and Deunta Williams – other UNC players singled out in the NCAA investigation – got packages from Watson, too. But the documents did not say specifically whether they contained cash.

Austin told the special agent with the Secretary of State that Quinn and Nix told him that Watson was “a douche bag” and complained to their teammates that the sports agent “had failed to come through with promises made.”

The warrants also point to packages going to Todd Stewart, a man who was disassociated from the UNC football program for his links to agents. The documents contend that Watson began phone contact with Burney, Williams and Brown prior to registering as an agent in North Carolina.

A Class I felony

The multi-year Secretary of State probe has yet to result in any criminal charges. The Secretary of State’s Office is the agency that regulates sports agent activity in North Carolina.

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.

The criminal probe began about a month after the NCAA investigation into the UNC football program was launched.

The NCAA investigation led to sanctions against the UNC football program and to dismissal of players from the team. That led to further allegations of academic misconduct among players.

Since then, Butch Davis was ousted as the football coach. Dick Baddour announced his resignation as athletics director sooner than he had planned. And Chancellor Holden Thorp announced that he will step down this summer after a scandal involving a top fundraiser and academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies department.

“At some point, the institution has to move on,” Baddour said Monday during a panel discussion in Raleigh about access to public records that was sponsored by the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and N.C. State Student Media. When asked after the forum about the unsealed warrants, Baddour referred questions to UNC. A spokesman for Thorp referred questions to Cunningham.

Gary Wichard

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 for 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.

Blythe: 919-836-4948