North Carolina investigators had an inkling two years ago that the feds were nosing around a financial adviser tangled up in their UNC-Chapel Hill athlete tampering case, but it wasn't until late spring 2016 that they began talking jointly about Marty Blazer, a state prosecutor said.
By then, the federal investigation that rocked college sports last week with indictments against assistant men's basketball coaches at four major universities and a shoe company executive was well on its way, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said. Blazer is the key informant in the federal case, numerous media reports say.
"We have been sort of watching and expecting something to happen with him," Woodall said of Blazer, the founder and owner of an investment advising firm out of Pittsburgh.
As the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York and FBI agents push further in their investigation into payoffs to coaches and athletes, state officials continue their case that spun from the perks agents and their runners gave to some of UNC's top football players roughly eight years ago. Blazer's name began popping up in late 2010 in the NCAA's investigation, and he hasn't gotten clear of the state case.
"We still have an active investigation and that there are potential state charges that he could be charged with," Woodall said. "But I would say in relation to that we would certainly reach out to the federal authorities and make sure that we weren't doing anything that could have an adverse effect on their investigation."
So far, the federal case has not pointed to problems at any of the Triangle's three Atlantic Coast Conference schools.
That's also true for UNC in the state investigation. Woodall said investigators with the N.C. Secretary of State's office have found nothing to show the agents and other businessmen looking to curry favor with athletes gave money to UNC athletic officials to serve as middlemen.
Documents in the state's case allege Chris Hawkins, a former UNC cornerback kicked off the team in 2004, gave former Tar Heels defensive end Robert Quinn $13,700 in cash to persuade him to sign with Blazer and an NFL agent. Hawkins is also accused of helping Quinn sell game-used equipment for $1,700.
Hawkins is one of five people charged in the state's investigation. Three have admitted being involved in making payoffs, while Hawkins and another defendant are awaiting trial. In 2010, UNC officials reported Hawkins "may have included Martin Blazer in some contacts with football players."
Blazer's attorney could not be reached last week. While Blazer is not identified as the informant who federal investigators say helped record conversations with coaches about payoffs, other information within court records has pointed to him.
Federal authorities have suggested more coaches and schools could be implicated in the scandal, which drew so much national attention last week that two congressmen now want the NCAA and any companies named in the case to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
It's also reignited the debate about whether college athletes should be paid. Some contend the NCAA's rules on amateurism and the NBA and NFL's rules on eligibility are creating an underground market of payoffs to football and basketball players who are denied the opportunity to go pro once they graduate from high school. Those rules force most basketball players to spend a year in college, and most football players three years.
Those athletes are supposed to receive the opportunity of a free college education in exchange for their labor on the court or field, but the bogus class scandal at UNC has cast doubts on whether universities are fulfilling their end of the bargain. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions is considering sanctions in the UNC scandal.
Documents in the state investigation suggest some of the defendants were involved in improprieties at other schools. Woodall said any such information as a rule is passed along to law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions, but that didn't appear to be the impetus for the federal investigation.
He thinks it was the Securities and Exchange Commission's investigation that caught Blazer taking money out of accounts he managed for athletes without their permission. That case would give federal investigators wide access to Blazer's financial dealings. It became public in May 2016.
"They probably saw the trail, which led in all different kinds of directions," Woodall said.