Newly released records show three attorneys billed UNC-Chapel Hill for representing football players the SBI had sought to interview as part of a criminal investigation into what turned out to be hundreds of bogus classes and independent studies.
The bills were small – a combined $2,500. That’s because the attorneys told the State Bureau of Investigation the football players couldn’t cooperate with the investigation, ending that line of inquiry. Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall told The News & Observer last year, in a four-part series about the scandal, that the athletes were concerned about their eligibility to play football.
The football players’ refusal to be interviewed at the advice of their attorneys adds a wrinkle to the long-running NCAA investigation into the fake classes. The SBI sought to interview the athletes in August 2012.
UNC’s attorney in the NCAA case, Rick Evrard, now contends the NCAA had closed its investigation into the fake classes by then, and under NCAA rules couldn’t revisit them. If true, the athletes’ statements about classes they had taken shouldn’t have led to eligibility issues.
The NCAA’s enforcement staff disputes Evrard’s rules interpretation, and after a rare procedural hearing several months ago, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions also rejected Evrard’s argument.
The case appears headed for an infractions hearing this summer, though it has been delayed as NCAA officials seek to interview Deborah Crowder, the former administrative secretary who created and graded many of the sham classes. Crowder expressed a willingness to talk with investigators last month, according to Elliot Abrams, an attorney who is representing her pro bono.
In recent weeks, Abrams has made public correspondence with the NCAA contending she wasn’t being given a fair opportunity to review the evidence against her. She has said in an affidavit that the classes were legitimate and she wasn’t trying to particularly help athletes.
A detailed investigation by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein in 2014 found that Crowder hatched a “shadow curriculum” of independent studies in 1993 that had no professor. By the end of that decade, she began disguising them as lecture classes to get around an independent studies limit.
Athletes accounted for roughly half of the enrollments in the classes, and 71 percent of the 154 students who took five or more bogus lecture classes. All told, more than 3,100 students took at least one of the classes until they were uncovered in 2011.
Woodall said the SBI sought to interview roughly 10 football players in summer 2012, but lawyers intervened on their behalf. Woodall said he did not know who paid for their services. James ‘Butch’ Williams of Durham was one of the lawyers who submitted bills. He said in an interview Thursday that UNC paid him for representing “three or four” of the 10 or so football players. The records show he billed UNC $500 for two hours of legal work.
Williams said he couldn’t discuss his work for the athletes.
The two other attorneys who billed UNC are James P. West of Raleigh and Ralph K. Frasier Jr. of Durham, who charged $1,500 and $500, respectively. West declined to comment; Frasier could not be reached.
The legal bills UNC released this month include an email exchange on Aug. 6, 2012, between Leslie Strohm, then UNC’s general counsel, and Amy Herman, then an associate athletic director for NCAA compliance at UNC. Herman now has a similar position at Duke University.
Herman told Strohm about the SBI’s plans to interview the football players. Their names are redacted.
“Thanks,” Strohm responded. “I had not been aware that the SBI planned to do this. I’m happy to talk tomorrow.”
Six months later, the SBI sought to interview Strohm. An attorney appeared with her and said Strohm couldn’t answer many questions because she had an attorney-client relationship with UNC. Strohm left UNC to become the University of Louisville’s general counsel in 2015.
The N&O requested records related to the football players’ legal representation on Aug. 8, 2016, after UNC officials declined to talk. UNC produced the records – five pages in all – eight months later. Joanne Peters, UNC’s recently hired director of media relations, said in an email response Friday they represent the total amount billed.
In that same records request, the N&O also asked for documentation related to another UNC claim in the NCAA case – that the NCAA had agreed not to use any information Wainstein and his investigators had obtained from Crowder or her boss, Julius Nyang’oro. He had created several more bogus classes after Crowder retired in 2009. UNC has yet to produce an NCAA record showing such an agreement.