“I will fight this case to the end, and I feel that I will be vindicated,” Former Michigan basketball star Chris Webber said from his practice facility in Sacramento.
Roughly 24 hours later, Webber took the first step toward fulfilling that vow, surrendering to U.S. marshals and pleading innocent to charges of conspiring to obstruct justice and giving false testimony before a grand jury.
If convicted, Webber could face a maximum of five years in jail and $250,000 in fines for each charge. Webber’s father and aunt also face the same charges, but have yet to be arraigned.
The government claims that Webber lied to a grand jury about the $280,000 he allegedly received from former Michigan booster Ed Martin from 1988 to 1993. Martin was being investigated for conspiring to launder money and running an illegal gambling ring in metro-Detroit auto plants.
Webber was fingerprinted and photographed before he stood in front of U.S. Magistrate Virginia Morgan, a 1968 University alum. Steve Fishman, Webber’s lawyer, entered his not guilty plea, and Morgan released him on a $10,000 unsecured bond.
Webber’s only words during the brief hearing Wednesday were to confirm that he understood the charges against him.
No money was immediately collected from Webber, and he is free to travel without restrictions in the United States.
A pre-trial conference was scheduled for Sept. 26 in front of U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, but it is possible that the case may be transferred to Judge Robert Cleland, who is handling the Ed Martin case.
Webber, the 29-year-old All-Star forward for the Sacramento Kings, hopes to be ready to play when his team starts its season with an exhibition game at Dallas on Oct. 8.
Geoff Petrie, the Kings’ vice president of basketball operations, said it is too soon to say whether Webber will miss any games in the upcoming season to deal with his legal problems.
Oct. 8 is also the date of Martin’s sentencing. Martin, who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to launder money on May 28, faces 30-37 months in prison – which could be shortened if he reveals all the details of his dealings with Michigan basketball players to the University.
Martin said he took money from the gambling ring, combined it with other funds and lent it to Webber and several other former Michigan basketball players while they were still amateurs.
Martin, 68, said that money included $280,000 to Webber, $160,000 to Robert Traylor of the New Orleans Hornets, $105,000 to Maurice Taylor of the Houston Rockets and $71,000 to Louis Bullock, who plays professionally in Europe.
Michigan’s basketball program has been under suspicion for violating NCAA guidelines relating to improper benefits since 1996, when a Ford Explorer driven by Traylor containing several other players and recruits crashed.
That accident sparked the first of three University investigations, which led to the firing of coach Steve Fisher but turned up no major violations.
“We are cooperating fully with the investigation,” Martin said. “It’s our job to find the facts and take them to the NCAA so that it can make a fair and just decision.”
NCAA officials would not comment on the status of their investigation, but possible penalties for the program could include loss of scholarships or television time. Michigan could also be forced to forfeit games or pay fines.
Michigan’s current coach, Tommy Amaker, could not be reached for comment.