CHAPEL HILL — A key figure at the heart of the prolonged academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill no longer faces a felony charge, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall announced Thursday.
Julius Nyang'oro, the former chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at UNC, was facing a charge of obtaining property by false pretenses, a low-level felony. That charge was dismissed amid his cooperation in separate investigations.
Woodall, in a statement released Thursday, said Nyang'oro has cooperated with the SBI criminal investigation that brought the charge against him. Nyang'oro has also cooperated with Kenneth Wainstein, the former federal prosecutor that UNC hired in February to investigate the AFAM problems and their relationship to athletics.
Woodall said Nyang'oro "has agreed to cooperate fully and completely" with Wainstein's probe.
"Nyang'oro has been interviewed on several occasions by Mr. Wainstein and his staff and has agreed to continue cooperating as needed," Woodall said.
Wainstein's investigation, which is expected to be finished in the fall, likely will play a significant role in the NCAA's second investigation into academic misconduct at UNC. More than two years after closing its first investigation at UNC, the NCAA announced earlier this week that it had reopened that investigation and presented UNC with a verbal notice of inquiry, the first step in its investigative process.
Woodall said in an interview that he decided to drop the charge to help Wainstein dig into the scandal. Woodall said even if he succeeded in convicting Nyang'oro of the felony charge, it would likely result in unsupervised probation, and very little insight as to how the scandal began and why it continued.
"The only way you are going to come close to getting to the bottom of it is by getting Nyang'oro, who very clearly is a major player, to talk about it in a way that he explains the nuts and bolts of what was occurring," Woodall said. "That was never going to happen in a criminal trial."
What Nyang'oro has been telling Woodall and Wainstein remains unknown. Woodall did not provide details because he said he did not want to impede Waintstein's probe. Woodall said Wainstein is not sharing specifics from his investigation unless it points to criminal conduct.
"He's not giving me details because he needs to be independent of me, also."
The department that Nyang'oro led for roughly 15 years will be the focal point of the NCAA's investigation, and it has been the focal point for Wainstein. Various investigations in recent years uncovered more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show classes within the AFAM department during Nyang'oro's leadership tenure.
A no-show class is one that was advertised as a lecture course but never met and required only an end-of-semester paper to earn a grade. The enrollments in the no-show classes featured a disproportionate number of athletes, 45 percent, and a high percentage of those were football or men's basketball players. Athletes make up about 5 percent of the student body at UNC.
One no-show class led to Nyang'oro's criminal charge. An Orange County grand jury in December indicted him after he received $12,000 in the summer of 2011 for teaching a course that he never actually taught. The course, "AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina," was among the scores of no-show AFAM courses that date at least to the mid-1990s.
After Nyang'oro's indictment, his attorney, Bill Thomas, vowed Nyang'oro would fight the charge. Late last month, Woodall indicated he might drop the charge against Nyang'oro because of his cooperation with the SBI investigation and with Wainstein, who has maintained regular contact with the NCAA.
Thomas in a statement on Thursday said Nyang'oro is "a decent and honorable man who has consistently denied" criminal conduct in relation with the AFAM case.
"We believe the issues raised in connection with this case are best handled in the university setting," Thomas said.
Wainstein released a statement Thursday through his law firm - Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft - in which he praised Nyang'oro for his cooperation.
"He has met with us on multiple occasions, he has answered all of our questions regarding the academic and athletic dimensions of the irregular courses offered in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, and he has provided important insights and information we would otherwise not have received," Wainstein said. "In sum, his cooperation has contributed significantly to the progress that our investigation has made to date."
Had Woodall prosecuted Nyang'oro, it was unlikely he would have faced prison time. Even so, the dismissal means Nyang'oro will avoid a trial that could have forced various UNC-CH personnel to the witness stand to explain what they knew about the suspect AFAM classes.
Burley Mitchell, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice and former member of the UNC Board of Governors, said Thursday that it would be "unheard of" to dismiss a felony charge in a case like Nyang'oro's without gaining something significant in return.
"You don't give up a felony charge against someone that, frankly, you can easily prove unless that person is giving you someone or something bigger," said Mitchell, a former district attorney in Wake County who holds an undergraduate degree from N.C. State and a law degree from UNC. "So that would be just a reasonable assumption and one probably I and most prosecutors would reach given this announcement."
Staff writer Dan Kane contributed to this report.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter