DA ponders dropping charges in UNC 'paper classes' case

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Story highlights

  • District Attorney Jim Woodall said he's thinking about withdrawing fraud charges
  • Former University of North Carolina professor Julius Nyang'oro is key figure in case
  • Woodall said his most important aim is the full cooperation of Nyang'oro
  • Whistleblowers say the Athletic Department used paper classes to keep athletes eligible

The sole set of criminal charges to come from the fake classes scandal at the University of North Carolina might soon be dropped.

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall told CNN that he's thinking about withdrawing fraud charges against ex-UNC professor Julius Nyang'oro.

Nyang'oro was indicted in December after a grand jury found he was paid to teach so-called paper classes, which didn't require students to attend but instead just write a single paper.

The scandal has drawn national attention since the NCAA has declined to punish the university, even though many of the classes were attended by athletes.

Whistleblower and former reading specialist Mary Willingham, along with former athletes, have also publicly said there was systematic cheating in the classes and that the Athletic Department used the paper classes to keep athletes eligible when they would have otherwise failed. But UNC has continuously denied that any administrators, except for Nyang'oro and his assistant, were aware of what was happening.

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Woodall said his decision was based on great cooperation from Nyang'oro in the criminal investigation and the latest UNC-commissioned inquiry, this one being conducted by former Homeland Security adviser Ken Wainstein.

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Woodall said he thinks it is better for the community to have Nyang'oro's cooperation -- to understand why, how and when the paper classes began and who had knowledge of them -- than to have a criminal prosecution move forward.

In either case, Woodall said, Nyang'oro is likely eligible for a diversionary program that would eventually lead to the charges being dismissed.

"Even though it's a noncriminal investigation, that is more important than this," Woodall said, referring to Wainstein's review.

"The money is paid back already," Woodall said. "This was more of an academic scandal than any kind of criminal issue. ... In the criminal probe, what we're left with is one low-level nonviolent felony for a person never in trouble before in his life."

That said, nothing has been decided. Woodall is simply considering it. Neither Nyang'oro or his attorney responded to CNN's requests for comment.

Last week, during a UNC board meeting, Wainstein gave an update, and referenced the cooperation from both Nyang'oro and his assistant, Debbie Crowder.

Woodall announced he declined to charge Crowder when she began cooperating.

Wainstein told the board that his team had been briefed by the criminal investigators and that Crowder and Nyang'oro were interviewed, "thanks in large part to the efforts and assistance of Orange County District Attorney James Woodall Jr."

Wainstein also said that his team has collected and searched 1.5 million e-mails and documents from more than 30 people, including faculty, athletic administrators at UNC.

They are also analyzing student transcripts going back to the 1980s and have gotten "extremely valuable" information from people who have reached out.

Woodall said he believes Nyang'oro's cooperation is imperative.

"It may be impossible to get to the bottom because this was going on for years and years, but the only opportunity to get a full picture -- they had to interview Julius Nyang'oro, and he was willing to do that."

Willingham said that there are several administrators in academics and athletics who openly talked about the paper classes and about putting athletes into the classes when they needed a boost to their grade point average.