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Search warrant issued in UNC agent-related probe

Investigators have issued a search warrant for the financial records of NFL agent Gary Wichard as they continue looking into whether North Carolina's sports agent laws have been broken.

The search warrant was issued Tuesday to Bank of America for documents connected to Wichard and his California-based firm, Pro Tect Management LLC, since January 2009.

Investigators say that Pro Tect paid $1,000 to reimburse a high school assistant coach, who had paid for former Tar Heels defensive lineman Marvin Austin's flights to and from California in March 2009, according to a probable cause affidavit filed with the search warrant.

In addition, Pro Tect paid $915.40 to a travel agency to cover changes to Austin's flight itinerary, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit also alleges Wichard failed to register with the state as a sports agent despite having "several phone conversations" with Austin starting in January 2009.

North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall's office launched an investigation after the NCAA began looking into possible agent-related benefits in North Carolina's football program.

"It's fair to say this is a definitely a step forward in the investigation," Marshall spokesman George Jeter said Wednesday.

The NFL Players Association suspended Wichard in December for nine months for his role in the UNC probe. Howard Silber, an attorney for Wichard, didn't immediately return a call and e-mail seeking comment on the search warrant.

In December, investigators interviewed Todd Amis — who coached Austin in high school — and he told them that Wichard called to thank him for sending Austin to California. Amis said Wichard told him he would reimburse him for the flight cost. In January, Amis gave investigators a canceled check dated March 3, 2009, for $1,000 from Pro Tect and signed by Wichard.

The travel agency, Altour International Inc., has also provided investigators with a copy of a check dated March 12, 2009, for $915.40 from Pro Tect that paid for Austin's flight changes.

Wichard spoke with investigators in October, shortly after they had interviewed Austin and Kentwan Balmer — a Wichard client who was a former teammate of Austin's at North Carolina. Austin had traveled to train with Balmer, then with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, at a facility located a short drive from Pro Tect's offices in Westlake Village, Calif. Balmer and Austin told investigators that Balmer paid for the hotel room the players shared and wasn't reimbursed by Wichard.

Amis also told investigators he paid $1,436.40 for Austin to visit Balmer again in California in July 2009, though there is no mention in the affidavit of whether Wichard reimbursed Amis for that trip.

The secretary of state's office also found no records that Wichard had renewed his registration with the state as a sports agent since it expired at the end of 1998, according to the affidavit.

The state requires sports agents to register in North Carolina and prohibits them from offering gifts before a contract is signed. Violations of North Carolina's agent laws can lead to criminal or civil penalties.

The NCAA probe began last summer and initially focused on whether Austin and receiver Greg Little received improper benefits, but later expanded to include possible academic misconduct involving a tutor.

Wichard's longtime friendship with former Tar Heels assistant coach John Blake became a key part of the investigation, including loans from Wichard that Blake's attorneys have described as one friend helping another during financial difficulties. Blake resigned in September.

Austin, a high NFL draft prospect, was dismissed from the team in October and never played a snap in his senior season. Six other players missed the entire season after either being declared "permanently ineligible" by the NCAA or held out by the school for unspecified reasons.

An eighth player missed the entire season, though he was cleared to return at midseason before deciding to redshirt.

In all, 14 players missed at least one game for the Tar Heels, who went on to finish 8-5 for the third straight season and beat Tennessee in double-overtime in the Music City Bowl.

The school is still awaiting the results of the NCAA probe.