NC State

Judge questions if bribing college athletes is a federal crime in Eric Leak case

Eric Leak played wide receiver for N.C. State from 1997 to 2000.
Eric Leak played wide receiver for N.C. State from 1997 to 2000. 1999 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Eric Leak’s tangerine jumpsuit was the only splash of color in Room No. 1-1 of the U.S. District Court for the Western Division of North Carolina on Wednesday afternoon in Charlotte.

Leak, a former N.C. State football player who has been in legal trouble and connected to NCAA troubles for N.C. State for almost a decade, was led into the beige court room shortly after 2 p.m.

Leak, 41, had already pleaded guilty to bribing college athletes and conspiracy to commit promotional money laundering in March. He is also serving an 18-month sentence from a separate federal case for Medicaid fraud.

He was expected to be sentenced Wednesday, but Judge Robert J. Conrad made the unusual decision to extend the case for at least another month. Conrad, in his remarks during court, described his decision as “somewhat of an ambush” for both federal prosecutor Daniel Ryan and Leak’s legal team of Kearns Davis and Edwin West.

But Conrad questioned the validity of the conspiracy portion of the charges against Leak and whether Leak’s payments to unidentified athletes constituted a federal crime. Conrad apologized for adding a delay to the case but said he wanted to make sure it was “resolved in a way that has the best chance of getting it right.”

According to the court documents, Leak provided between $50,000 and $75,000 to college athletes between 2012-15. He used money from his sports management services company, Hot Shots, to pay for “shoes, clothes, transportation, gas, loans, food and entertainment, hotel rooms, the use of vehicles” to an unspecified number of college football and basketball players in the hopes that they would sign with Leak’s company once they reached either the NFL or NBA.

Conrad decided to give the prosecutor an additional three weeks to make his argument and an additional seven days to Leak’s legal team to respond. He did not set a date for the next hearing. Davis declined to comment after he left the courtroom. Ryan was not available for comment.

The long Eric Leak legal saga

It’s the just the latest episode of a seemingly never-ending saga for Leak. He was a receiver for the Wolfpack from 1997 through 2000. He remained close to players in both the football and basketball programs after he had exhausted his eligibility. His problems with N.C. State date to 2010, when he provided $1,349 in impermissible benefits to basketball star Tracy Smith.

The court documents did not identify the players or schools involved in this legal case. Fred Demarest, a senior associate athletic director at N.C. State, told the N&O on Wednesday that the school “has not been made aware of any our student-athletes being” connected to this case.

Steve Kirschner, a senior associate athletic director for the University of North Carolina, told the N&O on Wednesday the school was not aware of any former UNC athletes being involved with Leak during that time period.

Leak’s name was brought up during the testimony of N.C. State compliance director Carrie Doyle during the federal fraud trial of former Adidas executive Jim Gatto.

One of Leak’s clients for his Durham-based sports management company is NBA star Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, who has an endorsement contract with Adidas, sponsors the North Carolina-based AAU program “Team Loaded.” Former N.C. State basketball star Dennis Smith Jr. played for Team Loaded and his father, Dennis Sr., was the team’s coach.

A $40,000 payment from Gatto to Smith’s family in 2015 is at the heart of N.C. State’s current NCAA problems. During Gatto’s trial Doyle testified about a meeting that she had in Oct. 2014 that involved former N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow and former basketball coach Mark Gottfried.

A memo from the meeting was included in the Gatto trial documents and it read in part: “Mark said he was told by the Huntington Prep coach that Eric Leak was Dennis’ financial advisor.”

Arkell Bruce is the coach at Huntington Prep in West Virginia and N.C. State had signed one former Huntington player (forward Ted Kapita) during Gottfried’s tenure.

NC State’s unsuccessful attempts to severe ties

N.C. State has tried multiple times to severe ties with Leak. Yow sent Leak a disassociation letter in Nov. 2011, which barred him from contacting the school’s athletes and from the school’s athletic facilities.

The NCAA had found that Leak had provided $410 in impermissible benefits to C.J. Leslie before the 2011-12 season, and Leslie was suspended the first three games of that season.

A year later, the school determined that Leak had started a business relationship with former football star David Amerson. In 2013, Leak was in trouble with the school again when a vehicle he owned received parking tickets outside the on-campus basketball practice facility. The school then barred Leak from campus property.

In March 2015, Leak’s troubles went from minor NCAA issues to the federal legal level. He was investigated by the IRS and had vehicles and documents seized from his Raleigh home in connection to a Medicaid fraud scheme.

He used a portion of the $8.7 million he received in federal funds for his Durham-based Nature’s Reflections mental health care company to support his Hot Shots sports management venture. In December 2018, Leak was sentenced to 18 months for federal bribery and money-laundering charges in connection with the Medicaid scheme.

Leak’s clients included Amerson, San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen (who is from Greensboro) and Wiggins. His prison sentence from the Medicaid fraud case is set to expire in May 2020.

Davis said in court on Wednesday that Leak has spent the past six months in county jail in Charlotte and his preference would be to serve the rest of his term at the low-security federal facility in Petersburg, Va.

Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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