- The lead FBI operative of the investigation into college basketball's black market is under fire himself for allegedly misusing federal funds during the probe, putting the prosecution's case on uncertain ground.
The climactic scene started with a knock on the door of an expansive suite at the W Hotel in Manhattan’s Times Square. It was Sept. 25, an unseasonably hot afternoon, and as tourists milled on the streets below Christian Dawkins entered the suite prepared to talk business. Yet what he thought would be a routine meeting with investors for his fledgling sports management agency ended with him leaving the room in handcuffs, soon to emerge as the central figure in one of the most sensational scandals in the history of college basketball.
The culminating moment of a years-long investigation into the seeping corruption in the sport featured most of the requisite elements of a true crime drama. Agents flashing badges. At least eight FBI heavies storming the room with brandished guns. A defendant caught off guard and so emotionally overheated—literally—that he stripped off his shirt.
Yet one critical actor was missing. The lead FBI operative, a veteran case agent who had played point guard, as it were, for a three-year operation designed to trace the flow of money through the recruiting underworld? He was mysteriously absent.
Following the sting at the W, Dawkins was charged with various federal crimes including wire fraud, bribery and money-laundering conspiracy. (He pleaded not guilty.) Within 24 hours, charges were leveled against 10 men in total—including four college assistant coaches, Adidas executives and an independent financial advisor. Most of them were apprehended with comparable drama. At 6 a.m. the morning after Dawkins’s arrest, Munish Sood, the financial advisor, was showering in his sprawling Princeton, N.J., home when federal vehicles flanked the Maserati truck parked in front of his brick house. Sood’s wife answered the door and led a team of armed operatives to her naked and unsuspecting husband.
An hour later in Greenville, S.C., a convoy of bureau trucks converged on the home of Merl Code Jr., an Adidas contractor and former Clemson basketball player. Code’s wife was on her computer when agents arrived. Agents seized her laptop before she led them upstairs to arrest her sleeping husband. Concurrently in Portland, Ore., federal agents stormed the suburban home of James Gatto, Adidas’s head of global marketing for basketball. Standing handcuffed, Gatto asked his wife to find his iPhone so she could call his lawyer. The FBI agents permitted the call, themselves spoke with the counsel on speaker phone, and then confiscated the cell. (Each of the aforementioned entered pleas of not guilty.)
The criminal cases stemming from this investigation will play out in New York’s Southern District and are scheduled to go to trial this fall. They will raise the usual raft of questions about the ethics of the NCAA, the unseemliness of recruiting, the fraught landscape of college sports. Should athletes who generate millions for their schools be paid? How—in an unprecedented legal argument—can the government assert federal fraud charges against coaches and middlemen when the “defrauded” parties are the very schools and athletic departments making vast sums of money from the work of unpaid athletes? Given the market distortions wrought by enforced amateurism, and the incentive to subvert rules, how can the below-board pursuit for talent be policed? Should NCAA violations, blatant as they may be, also be considered federal crimes?
But the government’s entire case may rest on a much more fundamental and less philosophical question: What happened to the lead agent?
For the first 18 years of his life, Christian Dawkins’s connection to basketball was mostly indirect. His father, Lou Dawkins, was Draymond Green’s high school coach in Saginaw, Mich., and the patriarch of a prep dynasty that claimed consecutive state championships in 2007 and ’08. Dawkins’s younger brother Dorian, a five-star recruit, was poised to become the next star in Saginaw’s basketball lineage before collapsing on the court in June 2009 and dying from a series of heart attacks caused by a rare birth defect. Christian’s basketball bona fides were considerably less impressive. A junior college dropout, he didn’t have much game. But as a team organizer and proprietor of a recruiting rankings website, he made a name for himself on the AAU circuit through savvy, hustle and force of personality. By his early 20s Dawkins had joined the echelon of basketball “runners”—the boots-on-the-ground recruiters for large agencies—and, almost single handedly, revitalized the floundering business of his boss, Andy Miller. Dawkins helped deliver 10 NBA first round draft picks between 2015 and 2017 for Miller’s ASM Sports.
Last summer, at age 24, Dawkins was plump with confidence and connections but short of finances. Outside the auspices of Miller’s business he had launched a fledgling sports management company entitled LOYD, an acronym for Live Out Your Dreams. Around the time of the 2017 NBA Draft, he was introduced to a man named Jeff DeAngelo. Marty Blazer, a Pittsburgh-based financial adviser, had put the two men together by way of Sood, Dawkins’s partner in LOYD. DeAngelo, who claimed to have made his fortune in New Jersey real estate, said he was now looking to branch into sports and was interested in bankrolling Dawkins and LOYD.
According to sources familiar with the FBI investigation, shortly before draft night, Dawkins met DeAngelo on a yacht docked in Lower Manhattan. They were joined by Sood as well as by DeAngelo’s associate, Jill, a strikingly attractive blonde who said she had made her money in technology and, almost as a hobby, was looking to insinuate herself into the world of NBA player management. Smartly dressed, DeAngelo took pains to show he had no shortage of disposable income. He expressed enthusiasm for aligning with a rising star in the agent world, nourishing Dawkins’s ego and making it clear he was willing to spend liberally.
Sources tell SI that in the course of conversation DeAngelo made a number of strange requests. At one point, he expressed his ambition for landing as many as 10 first round NBA draft picks. Dawkins gently explained that even the most prominent agents are especially lucky to land four or five picks in a single class. Sources tell SI that DeAngelo also forcefully suggested that LOYD funnel funds to college coaches in hopes of winning favor with NBA-bound players who were potential clients.
Dawkins and his zealous investor met again the following month at the Adidas Gauntlet in Las Vegas, a premier summer circuit AAU event, highly-trafficked by influential figures throughout all levels of competitive basketball. They met in a luxury suite at the Cosmopolitan hotel on July 29, continuing their discussions about how DeAngelo would underwrite Dawkins’s agency. Jill was present, too. A few weeks later, Dawkins was again scheduled to meet with his investors, this time in Los Angeles. However before the meeting Jill explained that DeAngelo had abruptly left to take care of his ailing mother in Italy. Jill would now be the point person for the partners’ investment. She wanted to get together in New York instead.
The fourth meeting marked the endgame. In that suite at the W, Jill revealed that she was in fact not a wealthy tech entrepreneur, but rather an undercover FBI agent. Jeff DeAngelo was not a brash New Jersey real estate magnate, but the lead investigator on the case. Dawkins was informed that his phone had been tapped for months, and hundreds of hours of wiretapped calls had been recorded. (Among the conversations, Dawkins had told the undercover agents, “You can make millions off of one kid.”) Blazer was not a benevolent, if slippery, networker. According to the charging documents, since November of 2014 he had been cooperating with federal agents in exchange for a reduced sentence in an unrelated case, and he had tipped off the FBI to Dawkins as a window into the world of college basketball corruption. On September 15, 2017, a few days prior to Dawkins’s sting, Blazer had pleaded guilty to securities fraud, aggravated identity theft, making false statements and documents and two counts of wire fraud.
It was in Las Vegas that Dawkins, using cash provided by DeAngelo and Jill, had allegedly paid coaches including USC assistant Tony Bland, who received an envelope containing $13,000—a transaction later detailed in the criminal complaint. The charging U.S. attorneys alleged that Dawkins, in handing over what was actually the government’s cash to assistant coaches, had not merely violated NCAA rules. He had committed a series of federal crimes.
While the various cases have yet to go to trial, the scandal has already endured its share of convulsive and strange twists. After allegations that Adidas brokered payments to a Louisville recruit, Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was fired by the school in October and then promptly filed suit against the university. A full slate of college hoops stars were implicated in the scandal and accused of receiving impermissible payments, but scant few were suspended for the NCAA tournament. Andy Miller, Dawkins’s former employer, quickly renounced his NBA agent certification, but, curiously, has not yet been charged.
But strangest of all: Under the so-called Brady rule, prosecutors are required to disclose to the defense materially exculpatory evidence—that is, evidence favorable to the accused. In this case, when defense lawyers for some of the accused parties received the government’s Brady disclosures, the document contained reference to the man who went by Jeff DeAngelo. Referring to the agent by his true name, the government conceded that the operation’s central figure stood accused of misappropriating investigative funds earmarked for the operation and spending the money on gambling, food and beverages during the probe. Reverse engineering the dates, this alleged misconduct occurred during the July 2017 trip to Las Vegas. Later, “DeAngelo” had not flown to visit his ill mother. The undercover agent had actually been removed from the case due to accusations about his own allegedly illegal activity.
According to public documents, the lawyer for Gatto filed a motion requesting specifics on this agent and his alleged corruption. “We asked the government for additional information regarding the circumstances of that misappropriation, including how much money we're talking about, how precisely the federal funds were used, and more information about their roles in the investigation,” lawyer Michael Schachter complained during a March pre-trial oral argument before Judge Lewis Kaplan. “The government declined to provide us with that information, rather standing on their initial disclosure.” (Schachter’s request is pending with the court. The U.S. Attorneys declined to comment to SI.)
Schachter also asserted, “Your honor, the government disclosed to us that the undercover agents and the case agents in this case are under criminal investigation for misusing government funds.” His use of the plural—implying that multiple agents are being investigated—was not challenged by either the judge or the prosecution.
Mike Cassidy, a professor of criminal law at Boston College Law School and former prosecutor, is not involved with this specific case, but is familiar with the fact pattern. “The question for the government: can we structure the case so we can prove this without this guy, without putting him on the stand?” says Cassidy. “If so, you can argue to the judge that it’s not relevant. If not, it’s a challenge because he’ll be impeached and cross-examined. He’s a liar and a thief. Why should you believe him?”
The FBI declined to comment on the investigation. The extent to which a potentially corrupt FBI agent may undercut the government’s case will be borne out in the months to come. But the irony is unmistakable: might a case predicated on the seduction of easy money, of trust betrayed, and of misappropriated funds, be undone by a rogue federal operative who, himself, could not resist the same lure he was tasked with exposing?