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Webber Faces Indictment

Jurisprudence: NBA star charged with lying to grand jury about money he received at Michigan.

September 10, 2002|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings was indicted Monday in Detroit on charges he lied to a federal grand jury about money and other benefits he and his family received from an area booster while he was a player at Michigan and at a suburban Detroit high school.

Identified in the indictment by his full name, Mayce Edward Christopher Webber III, "a/k/a Chris Webber, a/k/a C Webb," Webber faces charges of conspiring to obstruct justice and making false declarations before a grand jury when he testified two years ago.

Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, meaning the four-time NBA All-Star could face up to 10 years and $500,000 if convicted on both counts.

Webber's attorney and agent, L. Fallasha Erwin, did not return a call seeking comment.

The Kings, who signed Webber, 29, to a seven-year, $123-million contract before last season, also declined to comment.

Two other members of Webber's family--his father Mayce Webber Jr. and an aunt, Charlene Johnson--were indicted on the same charges.

The indictments stem not from an investigation of the Michigan program but from a lengthy federal probe of Eddie L. Martin, who ran an illegal lottery at Ford Motor Co.'s Rouge River Plant.

Martin pleaded guilty in May under an agreement that stipulates he will serve no more than 37 months in prison, acknowledging to authorities he tried to launder some of the proceeds by lending $616,000 to four Michgan players--Webber, Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor and Louis Bullock.

As part of the plea agreement, Martin admitted having given Webber and his family about $280,000 in cash and gifts between 1988, when Webber was still at Detroit Country Day School, and 1993, when Webber and other members of the "Fab Five" led Michigan to its second consecutive NCAA title game as sophomores. (Michigan lost to North Carolina in that game after Webber called a timeout the Wolverines didn't have.)

Federal authorities also said Martin gave $160,000 to Traylor, now with the New Orleans Hornets; $105,000 to Taylor, now with the Houston Rockets; and $71,000 to Bullock, who has been playing in Europe.

Traylor and Bullock admitted to receiving loans when they testified before a grand jury two years ago, and the Chicago Bulls' Jalen Rose, another member of Michigan's "Fab Five," also has said he took "pocket money" from Martin.

But Webber--despite the limited downside of admitting having taken money almost a decade later with his fortune secure and long after his NCAA eligibility has expired--has consistently denied accepting large sums of money.

He apparently stuck to that story when he was called to testify before the grand jury on Aug. 2, 2000. The indictment alleges Webber "knowingly misled and lied to the grand jury regarding the amounts of money, benefits, obligations and expenses paid to and on [Webber's] behalf."

Webber repeatedly has denied receiving $280,000, although the Detroit News reported that Martin had detailed financial records indicating Webber repaid about $40,000.

"There's no way in the world that I took $280,000 from someone," Webber told ESPN in April. "I've said this a million times. We had to actually go to court and testify about it, so if the judge, if the lawyers, if everyone else respected it, I thought it would get out to the media outlets as well. So no, I didn't take anything."

Webber told the New York Times in April that Martin often gave players $20 to mow his lawn.

"You have to remember, ninth or 10th grade, $20 is all you need for a week," Webber said. "I didn't get cars; I didn't get nothing. I got $20 here and there, a lot of times. I'll be honest, it happened a lot. And that shouldn't diminish the seriousness of it. Come on, I did not take $260,000 or $280,000. I did not take $100,000. I did not take tens of thousands of dollars."

Michigan--which fired coach Steve Fisher, now at San Diego State, in 1997 in the wake of an outside investigation that questioned Fisher's role in arranging comp tickets for Martin--now faces NCAA penalties for infractions that began more than a decade ago. Michigan could be forced to vacate its 1992 and '93 Final Four appearances and could face fines and postseason and recruiting limitations, even though Athletic Director Bill Martin and Coach Tommy Amaker were hired after the violations and the current players were youngsters at the time.

The NCAA has some leeway in handing down penalties; however, the amount of money involved in the case makes it one of the most serious in NCAA history.

"Our objective all along, ever since I've been here and I'm certain beforehand, was, 'Let's get the truth and let's act on it. Let's cooperate with the NCAA fully,' " Bill Martin, the athletic director, said last week before word of the Webber indictment.

"In the Ed Martin situation, the way I personally size it up, he is what one might consider a non-traditional booster--meaning he never was an alum of the University of Michigan. Any of the premier basketball talent at the junior high and high school level knew him as Uncle Eddie and had varying relationships with him.

"It's a very unfortunate chapter, but hey, we're big guys, and all we want to do is get this behind us as quickly as possible."

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