HILLSBOROUGH — Orange County’s top prosecutor will deputize three special assistant district attorneys to help him navigate the uncharted waters of the state’s criminal cases against sports agents accused of providing improper benefits to UNC football players.
Jim Woodall, the Orange district attorney, elaborated on the novelty of the criminal allegations Wednesday, just minutes after a Georgia-based agent made a first appearance in court.
Terry Watson, 39, of Marietta, Ga., has been charged with 13 counts of providing illegal benefits to three former Tar Heels — Greg Little, Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn.
All three are now in the NFL. Little is a receiver with the Cleveland Browns, who reportedly signed him to a $4.4 million, four-year contract in 2011. Quinn, a defensive end, was a first-round draft pick in 2011 by the St. Louis Rams. Austin, a defensive tackle, signed with the Miami Dolphins last month after the New York Giants released him in August.
Watson, who was released on a $50,000 bond, also is accused of one felonious count of obstruction of justice for initially refusing to let state investigators scrutinize his records.
The arrest came six days after a former UNC tutor, Jennifer Wiley Thompson, was booked in a case that is being watched by other prosecutors and defense attorneys across the nation.
Because an Orange County grand jury recently handed up indictments in five cases that were immediately sealed, three more arrests are expected.
“Although there may be some things that have to be tied up as to the indictments that have already come down, I think in large part it’s been concluded,” Woodall said about the investigation Wednesday. “Whether or not there are going to be more investigations or other people investigated, that’s a question that only the Secretary of State’s office can answer.”
The criminal accusations, thought to be the first of their kind in the nation, stem from a protracted investigation launched by the Secretary of State’s office after a 2010 NCAA probe exposed questionable activity between sports agents and the UNC football program.
Other schools, agents?
Though there have been mounting concerns nationwide about improper contact between athletes and sports agents, legal analysts have speculated that few criminal charges result because of the time and money it takes to investigate and prosecute such cases.
“I think it’s a good use of resources,” Woodall said Wednesday, “because I think it’s something we need to take seriously.”
He did not count out the possibility that the investigation into agents connected to the UNC scandal might lead to inquiries at other schools inside and outside North Carolina.
“It would be nice if some other states get involved and do some investigations,” Woodall said.
Watson, who was listed earlier this year by the NFL Players Association as having negotiated six active contracts, has been stung over the past two years by key clients leaving his firm for larger and more prominent agencies.
The indictments unsealed Wednesday accuse him of illegally providing Little with about $18,200 in cash – $6,600 of which was provided after NCAA investigators began their inquiry in Chapel Hill.
Watson also is accused of providing Little with two roundtrip airline tickets between North Carolina and Florida the last weekend in May 2010, at a value of $1,574, and a hotel room with internet service at the Doubletree by Hilton Surfcomber in Miami – benefits valued at $683.24.
The defendant is accused of providing Austin with $2,000 in cash on May 4, 2010.
The accusations related to Quinn, the only 2011 first-round draft pick of the three players, are for two roundtrip airline tickets between North Carolina and Florida on May 26, 2010 and a hotel room with no internet service – benefits valued at $675.74.
Russell Babb, the Raleigh lawyer representing Watson, said he had not had time by Wednesday afternoon to read what was alleged in the indictments.
“This is uncharted territory,” Babb said after the hearing. “I’m going to study the indictments. We’re going to scrutinize this statute. We look forward to the criminal discovery process so we can determine what’s backing up these allegations.”
Woodall said he plans to deputize Erin Finucan and Dena King from the Secretary of State’s office and Mitch Garrell, a former prosecutor in Durham who is now in a new white-collar crimes post created by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. Woodall and the three spent time with state investigators recently studying the North Carolina law that regulates the behavior of sports agents.
“We had to figure out what the law was and how to write the indictments,” Woodall said.
NCAA rules allow agents to meet with college athletes, but forbid the students from entering into contracts, verbal or written, while still eligible to play. Players cannot accept meals, gifts, transportation or other incentives to sign contracts later.
The NCAA regulations govern the athletes and schools, but not the agents.
Under North Carolina law, sports agents are required to register with the Secretary of State’s office and are prohibited from providing cash and other benefits to student athletes.
In addition to mandatory registration, the law requires agents to notify schools immediately when they sign college athletes. The students are given 14 days to change their mind and cancel contracts.
Schools have the legal right to sue agents who violate the law, though that option is rarely exercised. Agents who fail to comply can be punished with civil or criminal penalties.
Though a criminal conviction carries up to 15 months, the nature of the law, Woodall said, is that anyone convicted who has no prior criminal record would get probation, not prison time.
A glimpse at the case
Search warrants and other court documents associated with the Secretary of State investigation offer a deeper glimpse into part of the prosecution’s case.
Little, according to a warrant unsealed last month, told agents with the Secretary of State’s office that he received more than $20,000 from Watson in 2010, his final year on campus before leaving school.
UNC had declared Little permanently ineligible amid the widespread NCAA investigation that resulted in sanctions against the UNC football program.
The NCAA’s investigation found that multiple football players received impermissible benefits valued at more than $31,000.
State investigators contended in court documents that Little told them in January that he had received a steady stream of cash from Watson during his time at UNC.
The affidavit says that after Little agreed to let Watson become his agent, Watson came to North Carolina and provided Little with $5,000. Little told the state investigators that Watson gave him a monthly cash allowance of $2,200, and that he received $20,000 from Watson in 2010 alone.
Payments sent to tutor
The affidavit revealed that Little did not want to receive the payments directly from Watson for fear of potential scrutiny from the NCAA, so he had payments sent to Thompson, the former UNC tutor who also was cited in the NCAA infractions report as engaging in academic misconduct by helping players too much with their homework and school papers.
Thompson made a first appearance in Orange County District Court last week on four counts of athlete-agent inducement, a low-level felony that carries a maximum of 15 months in prison and also the possibility of civil penalties up to $25,000.
Prosecutors contend that Thompson provided Little with two $579 round-trip plane tickets to Florida as part of an attempt to persuade him to enter a contract with Watson.
Later that year, the indictments charge, Thompson delivered packages to Little containing $2,000 and $150 in cash.
Watson, according to the affidavit from search warrants unsealed earlier this year, sent payments to Thompson’s address, and then she would forward them to Little.
Both Thompson and Watson are scheduled to make appearances in Orange County Superior Court in mid-December.