HILLSBOROUGH — Michael Wayne Johnson Jr. was a noted N.C. Central University quarterback in 2010, closing in on school passing records and building a bigger name for himself in Durham, where he had been a high-school standout.
In many ways, he was the kind of college athlete the state’s Uniform Agent Act was designed to protect – a student athlete with hopes of playing at the professional level who had good friends at Division 1 schools with similar dreams.
On Wednesday, Johnson, a Hillside High School graduate, found himself on the other side of the North Carolina law that governs professional sports agents. Johnson is the fifth person to be criminally charged as the result of a protracted N.C. Secretary of State investigation into improper benefits provided to players on the 2010 UNC football team.
Johnson was arrested in Miami several days ago and was in Orange County District Court on Wednesday, making a first appearance on three counts of athlete-agent inducement.
In warrants unsealed in Orange County court, prosecutors outline their contentions – that Johnson was a go-between for Terry Watson, a Georgia sports agent already charged in the case, and Greg Little, a former North Carolina player who is a wide receiver with the Cleveland Browns. The 25-year-old Johnson, a friend of Little’s and someone who has worked with prominent Miami-based sports agent Drew Rosenhaus since college, faces three athlete-agent inducement charges.
The indictments charge Johnson provided a location for Watson to meet with Little in May 2010 and provide the wide receiver with $5,000. Johnson also twice provided Watson a location to send a package in May and June of that year that contained $100, according to the unsealed indictments.
William D. Young IV, Johnson’s Raleigh-based attorney, said Wednesday after a brief appearance in Orange County District Court that his client was “shocked.”
Johnson, Young said, was “an extraordinary student athlete and dedicated lifelong friend” to Little.
“He was not associated with or working with any agency so far as my view,” Young said.
Young, outside the courthouse Wednesday, declined to give specifics of what Johnson is doing now. Johnson was not working with an agent in 2010, Young said, adding that he wasn’t sure of Johnson’s current relationship with the Rosenhaus agency, which until this week listed Johnson on its website as an employee.
“Michael is the picture of the person this state law was designed to protect,” Young said.
Jim Woodall, the district attorney in Orange County, where the cases will be prosecuted, said he had a different view of the statute from those who believe the law “is designed to protect any student-athlete from the grips of an agent – period.”
“We’re not alleging that (Johnson) was being induced to sign a contract,” Woodall said. “And therefore I don’t think they’re protected under the statute.”
Under the state’s Uniform Athletes Agents Act, sports agents are required to register with the Secretary of State’s office as part of an effort to shield eligible college athletes from gifts and other illegal benefits that some agents try to use to entice prospective pros into representation contracts. Prosecution is left to district attorneys where the violations are alleged to have occurred.
Wednesday’s court appearance is the last of the expected indictments in the Secretary of State investigation resulting from the 2010 UNC football scandal. “I don’t anticipate any more indictments at this time,” Woodall said Wednesday.
In addition to Johnson and Watson, three others are accused.
Willie James Barley Jr., 29, of North Chesterfield, Va., faces four inducement charges. He is accused of providing Robert Quinn, a defensive end and 2011 first-round NFL draft pick now playing with the St. Louis Rams, with cash, airline tickets, a rental car and hotel room in May 2010. That included $750 to purchase two round-trip airline tickets, a hotel room valued at $675.74 and $100 in cash in addition to the use of a car for two days, according to indictments.
Unsealed indictments and other court documents offer a glimpse of what critics of college sports argue is the seamy side of big-money athletics.
Three former UNC football players – Quinn, Little and Marvin Austin – have been mentioned in the indictments. All three now play in the NFL.
Austin, a defensive tackle, signed with the Miami Dolphins last month after the New York Giants released him in August.
Quinn, Little and Austin were either dismissed from the UNC team or declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits and didn’t play during the 2010 season.
Watson, the Georgia agent, is accused 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 round-trip 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.
Watson, who has the most indictments against him so far of the three arrested, also is accused of providing Austin with $2,000 in cash on May 4, 2010. The accusations related to Watson and Quinn, the only 2011 first-round draft pick of the three players, are for two round-trip airline tickets between North Carolina and Florida on May 26, 2010, and a hotel room with no Internet service – benefits valued at $676.
NCAA rules allow agents to meet with college athletes but forbid 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.
North Carolina law requires sports agents to register with the Secretary of State’s office, and agents 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 minds and cancel contracts.
Former UNC tutor Jennifer Wiley Thompson was the first to be charged in the unusual criminal case. She was in district court on Oct. 3 to respond briefly to four counts of providing benefits to Little to help Watson sign the former Tar Heels receiver.
Thompson paid for airline tickets for Little and Johnson to go to Miami in May 2010, with Little telling investigators he reimbursed Thompson with money provided by Watson, according to court documents linked to the case.
Watson was charged with 13 counts and faces one count of obstruction of justice for not providing records sought by authorities.
Patrick Mitchell Jones, a real estate agent from Cartersville, Ga., is charged with providing $725 to Quinn. He appeared in court last month and is scheduled for a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on Dec. 17. The other defendants are scheduled, too, to return to court on Dec. 17.
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, the Orange County district attorney, has said, is such that anyone convicted who has no prior criminal record would get probation, not prison time. Correspondent Beth Velliquette contributed to this report.