NCAA unlikely to punish UNC for academic fraud, new documents show

dkane@newsobserver.comNovember 8, 2013 

  • ‘Anybody left over there?’

    The NCAA has had a year of turmoil, much of it related to problems with an investigation into improper payments made by a longtime booster to athletes at the University of Miami. The NCAA’s enforcement staff took a hit when President Mark Emmert found that the case was tainted by payments to the booster’s attorney to collect evidence in the case.

    Some of the turmoil is reflected in email correspondence between Vince Ille, UNC-Chapel Hill’s top compliance officer for NCAA matters, and Jackie Thurnes, an NCAA enforcement official. It shows the revolving-door dynamic between the NCAA and the universities it regulates.

    On April 5, Thurnes sought Ille’s help in filling five investigator positions. “We’ve got several openings within the enforcement staff that we are currently recruiting candidates for – 2 investigators in basketball, 2 investigators in investigations/processing and 1 investigator in football. Could you help spread the word to any individuals you know who might be good candidates?”

    Two months later, Ille wrote back: “Is there anybody left over there? Hope you and your family are doing well Jackie.”

    Thurnes responded within the hour: “Thanks, Vince. We are ok, but open to other opportunities.”

    Ille and Thurnes had worked as compliance officials for the University of Illinois in the late 1990s, according to online biographies. Ille said in an emailed statement that he hired Thurnes for the Illinois job.

Revelations about the ties between athletics and a long-running academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill have not shifted the NCAA’s position that no violations occurred, according to email correspondence released this week.

In late September, Vince Ille, a UNC senior athletic official, asked the NCAA to confirm that it had no plans to further investigate the fraud, and that there would be no violations added to the case that it spun from improper financial benefits from agents to players and improper academic help from a tutor.

“It is my understanding that, based on the available information, no additional investigation regarding these issues is being contemplated by the NCAA enforcement staff, nor does the staff believe that any modification of the infractions case that was completed on March 12, 2012 is necessary,” Ille wrote. “Can you please confirm or correct this assessment?”

Less than an hour later, Mike Zonder, the NCAA’s associate director for enforcement, responded: “You are correct in your assessment regarding the situation involving the AFAM department.”

Zonder and NCAA President Mark Emmert did not respond to an interview request. A spokeswoman, Emily James Potter, said in a short statement that Zonder’s email was “correct.”

Ille and other UNC officials declined to be interviewed.

Zonder’s email indicates the NCAA has not changed its position from August 2012, when UNC announced that the association had found no violations related to the academic fraud. That announcement drew fire from several experts on NCAA matters and numerous sportswriters and commentators.

The September email exchange between Zonder and Ille surfaced as part of public records requests The News & Observer had made for all correspondence between the NCAA and UNC. For months, that correspondence showed mostly the relaying of official reports regarding the academic fraud.

Notifying the NCAA

The fraud involved more than 200 lecture-style classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department that either didn’t meet or are suspected to have never met. The classes typically required a term paper at the end that received a good-to-excellent grade with little evidence of it ever being read.

Hundreds of accurately classified independent studies were also suspect because the department did not have the personnel to oversee them. There were also several hundred suspected and confirmed cases of grades being changed without proper authorization.

Athletes were disproportionately enrolled in many of these classes, but UNC officials have maintained that the scandal was not athletic in nature because nonathletes were also enrolled and received the same grades.

In September 2012, UNC officials released a statement saying that the NCAA, so far, had found no evidence of violations. Since then, more evidence has surfaced showing a strong connection between the African studies officials behind the fraudulent classes and the tutoring program for athletes.

On June 8 of this year, the N&O published a story about email correspondence involving the African studies department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, his longtime assistant Deborah Crowder, and numerous academic counselors. The emails showed a cozy relationship between Nyang’oro and the athletic tutoring program, including Nyang’oro being asked by a counselor to set up a no-show Swahili class.

Karen Moon, a UNC spokeswoman, said in a statement two days before the story ran that the emails contained “no new information.” She would not say whether the NCAA had received them.

The next day, June 7, Ille shipped those emails to the NCAA’s Zonder.

“The records we discussed are attached,” Ille wrote to Zonder. “If you have any questions, please just let me know. Thanks and have a great weekend.”

This week, neither Moon nor the NCAA would say whether the emails had been sent to or requested by the NCAA prior to June 7.

UNC has sought to limit the release of other information that would shed more light on the scandal. It has refused the N&O’s request, for example, for basketball and football enrollments in the earliest known fraudulent classes. The first three confirmed classes, former Gov. Jim Martin said, were Swahili language classes.

SBI probe finished

Martin, who conducted an investigation into the academic fraud for UNC, has acknowledged that he never saw the Nyang’oro emails. Peter Hans, the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, which had created a special panel to monitor the investigations, said the panel hadn’t seen them either.

Hans has said he was troubled by the emails because they showed a deeper and problematic relationship between Nyang’oro and the tutoring program.

NCAA President Emmert has said the case turns on whether there was the intent to create the classes and steer athletes to them to keep them eligible. He said in January that the NCAA was awaiting the outcomes of several investigations into the fraud, particularly a State Bureau of Investigation probe.

That investigation is being led by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall, and is now well into its second year. Woodall said SBI agents had the emails as part of a broad gathering of records in the case.

“We’ve gotten an enormous amount of emails, literally in the tens of thousands,” Woodall said. “So the answer is yes.”

Woodall and the SBI are not trying to determine the cause of the academic fraud. Their focus is on whether a crime was committed. So far, he has said the possible criminal conduct includes whether Nyang’oro caused the university to pay him $12,000 for a summer class he did not teach, and whether official records were altered.

Woodall said the investigation has been completed, leaving him with the decision to file charges, present the case to a grand jury or determine no crime had been committed.

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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