Five charged in college basketball bribe scheme
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 27, 2017
NEW YORK (AP) — In one of the biggest crackdowns on the corrupting role of money in college basketball, 10 men — including a top Adidas executive and four assistant coaches — were charged Tuesday with using hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to influence star athletes’ choice of schools, shoe sponsors, agents, even tailors.
Some of the most explosive allegations appeared to involve Louisville, one of college basketball’s biggest powerhouses, which is already on NCAA probation over a sex scandal.
Federal prosecutors said at least three top high school recruits were promised payments of as much as $150,000, using money supplied by Adidas, to attend two universities sponsored by the athletic shoe company. Court papers didn’t name the schools but contained enough details to identify them as Louisville and Miami.
“The picture of college basketball painted by the charges is not a pretty one,” said acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim, adding that the defendants were “circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes” and exploited them to enrich themselves.
Prosecutors said that while some of the bribe money went to athletes and their families, some went to coaches, to get them to use their influence over their potentially NBA-bound players.
The coaches charged are Chuck Person of Auburn, Emanuel Richardson of Arizona, Tony Bland of Southern California and Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State. Person and Evans were suspended, and Bland was placed on administrative leave.
Bland appeared in court in Tampa, Florida, wearing handcuffs and ankle chains. He said little during a brief hearing other than to answer the judge’s questions and did not enter a plea.
Richardson appeared in court in Tucson, Arizona, where he was set for release on $50,000 bond. His lawyer declined to comment.
Those charged also include James Gatto, director of global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas; Rashan Michel, a maker of custom suits for some of the NBA’s biggest stars; and various financial advisers and managers.
NCAA President Mark Emmert condemned the alleged misconduct, saying, “Coaches hold a unique position of trust with student-athletes and their families, and these bribery allegations, if true, suggest an extraordinary and despicable breach of that trust.”
Since 2015, the FBI has been investigating the influence of money on coaches and players in the NCAA. Kim noted a special FBI hotline was set up and asked anyone aware of additional corruption to come forward.
Prosecutors said the coaches took bribes to use their “enormous influence” to steer players toward certain financial advisers and agents.
Most if not all of the 10 defendants were under arrest. Lawyers for Gatto and two of the coaches did not immediately respond to requests for comment. It was unclear whether Evans had an attorney.
Adidas said it was unaware of any misconduct by an employee and vowed to fully cooperate with authorities.
Gatto and others are accused of funneling $100,000 to the family of a high school athlete to gain his commitment to play at Louisville and to sign with Adidas once he became a professional. Louisville and Adidas announced a 10-year, $160 million extension of their sponsorship deal over the summer.
The player’s name was not released, but details in the criminal complaint make it clear investigators were referring to Brian Bowen, who did not return messages seeking comment.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said the allegations “come as a complete shock to me.”
The development comes as Louisville is appealing a four-year NCAA probation over a scandal involving escorts hired for players and recruits. The scandal could cost the school its 2013 national championship.
In court papers Tuesday, the FBI said it recorded a July meeting at which an assistant coach at Louisville was briefed on a plan to funnel thousands of dollars to a potential high school recruit. The participants in the meeting noted they had to be careful because Louisville was on probation.
“We gotta be very low key,” said the coach, according to the FBI.
Investigators said agents wiretapped a call in which Gatto and another defendant discussed an unidentified coach at Miami requesting that Adidas pay as much as $150,000 to another recruit, in part to prevent him from accepting a similar offer from a rival apparel company.
Louisville interim President Gregory Postel confirmed the university has been informed it is part of the investigation and said, “Any violations will not be tolerated.”
Miami said it will cooperate with authorities, while USC said it appointed former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to conduct an internal investigation.
The investigation began after Martin Blazer, a Pittsburgh-based financial adviser to pro athletes, began cooperating with authorities in 2014. Blazer, accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of taking money from clients without permission, pleaded guilty this month to fraud and other crimes.
He admitted making payments and loans to NCAA athletes as far back as 2000 to get them to hire him.
Person, associate head coach at Auburn, was drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 1986 and played for five NBA teams over 13 seasons.
Prosecutors said Person accepted about $91,500 in bribes from Blazer last year to steer clients to him when they reached the NBA. Some payments were alleged to have been arranged by Michel, a former NBA referee turned high-end clothier.
Person was quoted by prosecutors as telling one player: “The most important part is that you … don’t say nothing to anybody … don’t share with your sisters, don’t share with any of the teammates, that’s very important ‘cause this is a violation … of rules. But this is how the NBA players get it done.”
Prosecutors said Evans solicited at least $22,000 over the past two years, while Richardson in February was paid $20,000 in bribes, some of which he kept for himself and some of which he gave to at least one high school athlete to get him to play for Arizona.