An attorney in the University of North Carolina's ongoing academic scandal wants Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey removed as head of the NCAA infractions panel hearing the case because of a conflict of interest.
Raleigh attorney Elliot Abrams wrote the Indianapolis-based NCAA this month, saying Sankey "has a personal, professional and institutional interest in the outcome" of the case involving his client, Deborah Crowder, a retired UNC officer administrator. He compared Sankey's involvement to "the Commissioner of the SEC refereeing a championship game between an (Atlantic Coast Conference) team and an SEC team."
He also described Sankey as a potential witness regarding a previous case at Auburn during his time as an SEC associate commissioner that had similarities but didn't lead to major violations.
In a second letter Tuesday, Abrams stated the third Notice of Allegations outlining charges against Crowder and UNC should be tossed out. He called it the result of "inappropriate pressure from a conflicted hearing panel," adding that the entire panel is tainted by Sankey's involvement and should be recused.
Abrams provided The Associated Press with copies of both letters. The requests are part of the latest snag in an oft-delayed case featuring five top-level charges first filed nearly two years ago.
SEC spokesman Herb Vincent deferred questions Wednesday to the NCAA.
According to a written statement provided by NCAA spokeswoman Emily James on behalf of the committee, the membership "continues to believe a committee with representatives from across the membership and the public is the most appropriate to resolve infractions cases.
"The committee is confident that the members who comprise this hearing panel appropriately represent the committee and do not have conflicts," according to the statement. "As the panel reviews ongoing cases, it is important to note that the panel will decide the case based on the full record, not just information made available in public statements."
In a statement, UNC spokesman Joel Curran declined comment about the specifics of the case.
"At this time, we simply respect the ability for named parties to defend themselves, as they consider appropriate, consistent with NCAA bylaws and operating procedures," he said.
The academic case is tied to irregularities in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies, or AFAM, department. Most notably, there were independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn't meet and required a research paper or two—courses featuring significant athlete enrollments and typically offering high grades.
The NCAA reopened its investigation in summer 2014 and first charged UNC in a Notice of Allegations filed in May 2015. It then revised the charges in a second version last April, and then changed them again in December .
UNC's response to the charges is on hold as Abrams said he is working to set up an interview for Crowder after she had previously refused to speak with NCAA investigators. Crowder, a former office administrator who graded many of the papers, defended the quality of the irregular courses in a March affidavit.
Abrams wrote in Tuesday's letter that a Friday deadline to interview Crowder was "arbitrary," saying it "essentially ensures she cannot be adequately prepared to respond to specific questions about documents created between one and four decades ago."
In seeking Sankey's removal, Abrams' April 4 letter stated he could be a witness to discuss an NCAA investigation at Auburn tied to independent study courses in 2005 and 2006. In that case, the NCAA investigated claims that an Auburn sociology professor was helping football players and other athletes stay eligible through the courses that required little or no classroom time.
The NCAA determined in 2008 that Auburn didn't commit academic fraud and found only secondary violations. Abrams wrote he would want to "highlight ... the difference between the NCAA's response in this case" compared to the Auburn probe.
Abrams also sought details of communication between the NCAA and former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein during Wainstein's 2014 investigation of the AFAM irregularities. Crowder cooperated with that probe, which estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes across numerous sports accounting for roughly half the enrollments.