Money trail ties agent, ex-UNC coach
Prominent NFL agent Gary Wichard and former University of North Carolina assistant football coach John Blake have engaged in multiple financial transactions since May of 2007, a four-month investigation by Yahoo! Sports has found.
Wichard and Blake are now at the center of NCAA and North Carolina Secretary of State probes, which are seeking to determine the nature and scope of alleged agent tampering involving the football program. Those investigations have also focused on Tar Heels defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who has made at least five trips that have come under scrutiny. Two of those trips included training at a California facility less than two miles from Wichard’s agency, Pro Tect Management. Yahoo! Sports has obtained a hotel receipt from one of those trips, which lists Austin’s name above Pro Tect Management, as well as an address and Marriott Rewards number belonging to an NFL marketing agent who represents two current Pro Tect clients.
Since the NCAA and state of North Carolina probes began in July, UNC also began its own investigation into potential academic fraud involving a tutor. Multiple Tar Heels football players have been suspended from games and practices this season, and Blake resigned on Sept. 5, less than one month after a Yahoo! Sports report revealed his former position as an employee of Pro Tect. In a statement, Blake stated that he decided to step down because his presence was becoming a distraction to the football team.
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports in August, Wichard denied any impropriety between himself and Blake. He also denied that Blake was ever previously employed by Pro Tect Management, despite a brochure obtained by Yahoo! Sports which listed Blake as the vice president of football operations for the agency and described his duties. But Wichard insisted that while the two have shared a 25-year friendship, there has been no financial relationship between the two.
“I don’t get involved with him bringing me players or anything like that,” Wichard said. “It has not happened. … Would John Blake say something positive to a kid about me if he was asked? I would think so. He has seen my work over the years, just like I would say something positive about him in terms of what he can do as a coach.”
[Photos: North Carolina football team]
But three sources said documents show the relationship between Wichard and Blake also extended into the financial realm several times over the past three years. Those instances included:
• At least six wire transfers from Wichard’s private bank – The First National Bank of Long Island – to Blake.
• A $45,000 personal loan to Blake from The First National Bank of Long Island.
• A Pro Tect Management credit card issued in Blake’s name.
Cast of characters
Gary Wichard: One of the NFL’s most prominent agents, Wichard is being investigated by the NCAA and North Carolina Secretary of State, in probes that are seeking to determine if agent tampering occurred in the University of North Carolina football program. The name of Wichard’s agency, Pro Tect Management, appears on a July, 2009 hotel bill linked to Tar Heels defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Multiple sources have also told Yahoo! Sports that documents show a history of financial transactions between Wichard and John Blake, Austin’s former position coach at UNC.
John Blake: A longtime friend of Wichard, Blake had been the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator for the Tar Heels, until his resignation on Sept. 5. He is currently being investigated in the NCAA and state probes. Blake was the position coach for former Tar Heel player and current Wichard client Kentwan Balmer. An August report by Yahoo! Sports found Blake had been previously employed as the vice president of football Operations for Wichard’s agency, Pro Tect Management. Sources have detailed a history of financial transactions between Wichard and Blake since 2007.
Marvin Austin: The Tar Heels defensive lineman who has become a prominent part of NCAA and state investigations into potential agent impropriety at UNC. Austin has five cross-country trips under scrutiny, including two to California and three to Miami. His name appears on a hotel receipt that contains the name of Wichard’s agency, Pro Tect Management, as well address and Marriott rewards account information of NFL marketing agent Fadde Mikhail.
Kentwan Balmer: A former teammate of Austin’s at UNC and current member of the Seattle Seahawks, Balmer trained with Austin in California in March and July of 2009. Representatives for Balmer say he allowed Austin to share a hotel room with him during the March workout, and paid for Austin’s room during the July workout.
Fadde Mikhail: An NFL marketing agent and self-described CEO of Creative Sports International, Mikhail represents two players who are clients in Wichard’s agency – Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller, and New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie. An address and Marriott Rewards number linked to Mikhail appear on a July 2009 hotel receipt, along with Austin’s name and Pro Tect Management.
A source familiar with the secretary of state’s probe told Yahoo! Sports that Blake has discussed the existence of the transactions with investigators.
A North Carolina attorney for Blake, Wade Smith, declined to comment on Blake’s testimony for state officials. But Smith said there is no evidence showing Blake steered players to Wichard, and added that his client has been open with investigators.
“John Blake has cooperated fully with the secretary of state in North Carolina,” Smith said. “He has met with representatives of the secretary of state and has been very cooperative with them.”
If the NCAA were to determine that a coach was acting as a “runner” to deliver players to an agent, the coach could be subject to bylaw 10.1, which determines unethical conduct of staff members. That bylaw bars the “receipt of benefits by an institutional staff member for facilitating or arranging a meeting between a student-athlete and an agent, financial advisor, or a representative of an agent or financial advisor.”
Wichard didn’t respond to a phone call and text message from Yahoo! Sports seeking comment.
Wichard’s attorney Howard Silber said he has knowledge of financial transactions between Wichard and Blake, but could not speak about them because of confidentiality issues with the secretary of state’s investigation.
“All the financial records that you’re discussing, and others, are part of the inquiry of the secretary of state,” Silber said. “I can’t really comment on them. I am aware of those particular items that you’ve discussed.”
At least one document from Austin’s two trips to California has a direct reference to Wichard’s agency, Pro Tect Management.
A copy of a hotel receipt obtained by Yahoo! Sports displays Austin as a guest at the Residence Inn in Westlake, Calif., from July 23 to Aug. 1, 2009. Located a half mile from the Pro Tect offices, the hotel charged $1,802.08 to an American Express, while listing Austin’s name above “Pro-tect Management” [sic]. The bill, which was authenticated by a hotel employee, also lists the address of Fadde Mikhail, a marketing agent who currently represents two Wichard clients – Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller and New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Additionally, the hotel employee confirmed to Yahoo! Sports that the rewards number on the bill belongs to Mikhail.
Wichard told Yahoo! Sports in August he had no involvement with Austin’s visit to California, and that the player made the trip to train with former Tar Heels teammate – and current Wichard client – Kentwan Balmer. The two worked out at ProActive Sports, a training facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., that is less than two miles from the offices of Wichard’s sports agency. ProActive’s website lists 12 players represented by Wichard as clients.
If either Wichard or Mikhail had arranged for free lodging for Austin in the summer of 2009, they would have violated NCAA and NFL Players Association rules and, potentially, North Carolina state statutes.
NCAA bylaw 220.127.116.11 prohibits athletes from taking any benefits from prospective agents, including travel, training, lodging or other forms of compensation that would be considered extra benefits. The NFLPA also prohibits agents from contacting student athletes prior to Dec. 1 of their redshirt sophomore or true junior seasons. And North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act makes it a felony punishable by up to 15 months in prison for agents to provide anything of value to athletes prior to a contractual agreement being reached.
When asked about Austin’s trips to California in March and July of 2009, Silber, who represents both Wichard and Balmer, said Balmer had paid for Austin’s hotel room. Asked why Balmer’s name and address were not on the July receipt, Silber said he did not know.
“I really couldn’t tell you,” Silber said.
Silber said he also didn’t know why the bill listed Pro Tect Management, as well as the address and Marriott Rewards number linked to Mikhail.
“There’s a lot of explanations as to why that might have happened,” Silber said. “It could be something done at the Marriott. Maybe they just put somebody’s name on there who stayed in the room. I don’t know.”
Reached by Yahoo! Sports on his cell phone, Mikhail insisted he had no involvement with Austin.
“I know who Pro Tect Management is,” Mikhail said. “And obviously I know who Marvin Austin is, but that’s it.”
Asked if he has ever had any contact with Austin, Mikhail said, “No. Absolutely not.”
Austin’s attorney, Christopher Lyons, said his client was told that Balmer was paying for lodging. Lyons said if anything to the contrary took place, Austin wasn’t aware of it.
“Marvin’s position has always been consistent that he was told by his close friend and ex-teammate Kentwan Balmer that he would take care of the expenses for the room,” Lyons said. “He would have no knowledge of anything other than that.”
Sources have told Yahoo! Sports the NCAA and state of North Carolina are focusing on at least five trips made by Austin in 2009 – three to Miami and two to California.
Three sources said Wichard and Pro Tect are the focal point of the probes into Austin’s trips to California. The sources said Austin’s airfare for the trips – taken in March and July of 2009 – was paid by Todd Amos, Austin’s assistant coach at Ballou Senior High School in Washington, D.C.
However, the sources said investigators have found multiple instances of improper contact between Wichard and the player, including phone records that show a “very significant” amount of contact that would violate NCAA statutes. This despite Wichard’s assertion to Yahoo! Sports in August that he had only spoken to Austin one time, in January of 2009.
Both Blake and Austin have met with NCAA investigators, and also sat for testimony in the secretary of state’s probe earlier this month. Balmer has not been interviewed by the NCAA, but did testify for investigators from the secretary of state on Tuesday. Silber said Balmer was never asked about specific hotel receipts involving Austin.
Prior to Austin testifying for the secretary of state earlier this month, Austin’s attorney, Lyons, asked Silber to provide a receipt proving Balmer had paid Austin’s lodging expenses during his trips to California. The receipt was meant to back Austin’s testimony to the secretary of state that he believed Balmer had paid for his lodging during his trips to California.
Silber responded with one page – a portion of a receipt for a 35-day stay at the Westlake, Calif., Residence Inn, spanning February and March. The one page, which was the final page of a multi-page bill, listed Balmer as the hotel guest. Silber told Lyons this was the room Balmer and Austin shared during Austin’s March visit to work out at ProActive. Lyons subsequently turned that bill over to NCAA investigators, believing it exonerated Austin of any wrongdoing.
But Yahoo! Sports obtained the full multi-page bill for that 35-day stay, and it featured a discrepancy from the one page provided to Lyons. On the bill obtained by Yahoo! Sports – which was authenticated by a hotel employee – there are lines listing “Pro-tect Management,” and the former business address of Wichard’s agency. Those lines appear beneath Balmer’s name. However, the receipt provided to Lyons had deleted the Pro Tect information.
Questioned about that discrepancy, Silber said he removed the Pro Tect information before sending the receipt to Lyons. He also said he didn’t notify Lyons of the changes to the receipt. Asked why he took those measures, Silber said it was to protect Balmer’s “personal information.”
“The problem here was that Mr. Lyons had no authority to produce that document to either the secretary of state or the NCAA in that form,” Silber said. “Unfortunately for him, he didn’t know the information had been redacted. We simply redacted it for the privacy of Mr. Balmer. … Mr. Balmer has the right to take off private information.”
Asked why a public business address for Wichard’s agency was considered private information, Silber said, “Where [Balmer’s] bills get sent is a private matter.”
But Balmer’s 35-day stay at the Residence Inn wasn’t the lone receipt produced. Yahoo! Sports obtained a second bill under Balmer’s name for a seven-day stay that overlaps with the 35-day stay.
The receipts, which were authenticated by a hotel employee, show Balmer held two rooms at the same time for seven days. The rooms were paid for on different credit cards. A fourth-floor room was held for 35 straight days, from Feb. 6 through March 13, and accrued a bill of $4,682.78. Another fourth floor room, located 20 doors away, was reserved at the same time from March 7 to March 14, and accrued a total of $1,260.29. The two bills were paid with different credit cards. The 35-day stay was paid on a Visa. The seven-day stay was paid on an American Express – the same type of card used to pay the July stay that lists Marvin Austin alongside “Pro-tect Management” and marketing agent Mikhail.
Additionally, the seven-day stay matches up with the University of North Carolina’s spring break in 2009. And travel records show Austin took a Delta flight to Los Angeles on March 6, followed by a departing flight out of Los Angeles on March 15.
Asked to explain the existence of this second overlapping room, Silber said he wasn’t aware that the second receipt under Balmer’s name existed.
“I’ve never seen it, so I can’t comment on it,” Silber said. “I’ve not heard any testimony about it. You’re the only person who has ever told me about it. … My stance is I don’t know anything about it.”
Both the NCAA and North Carolina Secretary of State declined to comment on the progress of their investigations. A high-ranking source from NFLPA said the union is monitoring the investigations and has asked any agents contacted by the NCAA to cooperate fully.
However, the NFLPA source added that NCAA investigators have failed to turn over any evidence of wrongdoing involving NFL agents – which could hinder the union’s ability to punish any offending agents.
“Lack of evidence is an issue,” the source said. “Thus far, none of the documents generated in the [NCAA and secretary of state] investigations have been shared with the NFLPA.”
Stacey Osburn, a spokesperson for the NCAA, encouraged the NFLPA to get involved in its own investigation, rather than waiting for another body to provide evidence.
“In our conversations with the NFL Players Association, we have told them we will work as cooperatively as possible to share information regarding agent conduct once we conclude our investigation,” Osburn said. “However, that should not deter the NFLPA from conducting its own investigation into the matter, as they have the responsibility and jurisdiction to investigate and discipline agents.”
Contact Yahoo! Sports investigative reporter Charles Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org