RALEIGH — Investigators in North Carolina say a Georgia-based sports agent violated sports agent laws by sending cash payments and other benefits to former Tar Heels football players.
In search warrants unsealed Monday, investigators with the Secretary of State's office say Terry Watson of the Watson Sports Agency sent $2,000 cash in 2010 to Marvin Austin, who was dismissed from the team that year for receiving improper benefits. They also say Watson had contact with players before registering with the state.
The office launched its probe in 2010 shortly after the start of an NCAA investigation at the school. The law prohibits agents from offering gifts before a contract is signed and can lead to criminal or civil penalties.
Both North Carolina and Georgia are among 42 states with laws regulating sports agents.
When she launched that investigation, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall said the focus was not on athletes or schools — but on the agents and anyone giving athletes items of value. The state's Uniform Athletes Agents Act requires agents to register with Marshall's office and is designed to shield athletes from sports agents who would offer gifts to entice them to sign representation contracts.
It is a Class I felony to violate the law, meaning a maximum prison sentence of 15 months, and violations also could carry civil penalties of up to $25,000. Prosecution of the law is left to district attorneys in the locations where violations are alleged to have occurred.
Jim Woodall, the district attorney in Orange County where the university is located, confirmed he has met with the Secretary of State's investigators but declined to comment on specifics of the case because it is an ongoing investigation.
Watson didn't immediately return a call from The Associated Press to his Marietta, Ga.-based office.
Chris Perlera, a spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said Watson is not under investigation in that state. A review of Georgia's sports agents law found that it is similar to North Carolina's, but its criminal penalties range from fines of $5,000 to $100,000 and between one and five years in prison. Like the one in North Carolina, it contains possible civil penalties of up to $25,000.
The search warrants from October, December and January sought computer, financial and office records tied to Watson.
According to the probable cause affidavit in the search warrants, investigator A.H. Jones said Austin told him in an interview that "Terry Watson was a guy who gave me money" and the probe led him to an associate of Watson's named Patrick Jones.
The investigator said Jones admitted Watson had asked him to send packages to athletes he was recruiting to persuade them to sign with him because it was the only way Watson's agency could compete with bigger agencies, that packages containing cash was sent to athletes at other unnamed schools and that Watson contacted athletes almost five months before registering with the state.
Patrick Jones said the only name he could remember Watson mentioning was former receiver Greg Little, who along with Austin and Robert Quinn never played a snap for the Tar Heels in 2010 due to improper benefits.
Investigators later discovered a FedEx package sent in October 2010 from Watson to former tutor Jennifer Wiley, who was tied to academic misconduct violations and provided more than $1,900 in improper benefits to Little for an airline change fee and parking tickets. The address was provided by Little's close friend and phone records showed nine calls between Watson and Little the day the package was sent, though the December search warrant doesn't specify exactly what was in the package.
Joseph B. Cheshire V, Wiley's attorney, declined to comment on the warrants Monday.
Watson also paid for hotel accommodations through a runner for Quinn and former UNC player Jordan Nix during a trip to Miami in May 2010, according to the December search warrant. Nix wasn't charged with a violation during the NCAA probe.
In addition, investigators found Watson had a receipt for a $212 wire transfer from Jones to former Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes, now with the NFL's New England Patriots. They also found text messages from Watson to former South Carolina cornerback Chris Culliver — now with the San Francisco 49ers — requesting account information and instructing Culliver to delete the messages, according to the January search warrant.
The NFL Players Association website lists the Watson Sports Agency as having negotiated six active contracts. The warrant mentions defensive back Cortland Finnegan, who signed a five-year, $50 million contract with the St. Louis Rams last year, as one of its clients.