The first week of the second college basketball corruption trial didn’t produce game-changing revelations but there were notable accusations—including against prominent players and coaches. These individuals were named in connection with alleged payments and receipts from illicit transactions.
As detailed in our SI trial preview, client recruiter Christian Dawkins and Adidas consultant and basketball organizer Merl Code are defendants in a criminal case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Dawkins and Code are accused of paying tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to college coaches. In return, the coaches persuaded players to hire Dawkins’s fledgling sports management company, Live Out Your Dreams (“LOYD”).
Dawkins and Code each face charges for bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy. They allegedly schemed with assistant coaches from the men’s basketball programs at South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Arizona, University of Southern California, Creighton and Texas Christian University. As prosecutors see it, the schools were victims in that they were denied the honest services of their coaches.
Dawkins and Code are already convicted felons. The two men, along with Adidas director of global marketing James Gatto, were found guilty last October of wire fraud and conspiracy in a related criminal enterprise. The trio had colluded to funnel payments to elite high school basketball players as inducements to attend college basketball programs sponsored by Adidas. Last month, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced Gatto, Dawkins and Code to relatively short prison sentences (nine months for Gatto and six months for Dawkins and Code). Those sentences will not begin unless and until the defendants’ appeals play out without success.
Like any federal prosecution, this week’s trial began with jury selection followed by opening statements. In opening statements, one prosecutor and one defense attorney each offer contrasting overviews of the case. Thereafter the prosecution calls its witnesses to the stand.
The government’s case is fairly straightforward. As depicted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Eli Mark and fellow SDNY prosecutors, Dawkins was a 20-something wanna-be entrepreneur in the basketball world. The 45-year-old Code, meanwhile, was already respected from his positions with Nike and Adidas and having played college hoops at Clemson in the '90s. Dawkins and Code, along with financial advisor Munish Sood (who previously pleaded guilty), allegedly conspired in a scheme to bribe coaches.
Incriminating evidence against Dawkins and Code includes audio recordings, financial records and the testimony of cooperative witnesses. A key witness for the government is Pittsburgh-based financial advisor Marty Blazer, who assisted the FBI as part of his own plea deal. Blazer, who has pleaded guilty to securities fraud, wire fraud, identity theft and making false statements, says he attended meetings with Dawkins and coaches in which bribes were planned. As detailed below, Blazer’s testimony included allegations that extend into college football.
Steven Haney, Andy Matthias and other attorneys for Dawkins and Code do not need to prove that their clients are innocent. They “only” need to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether Dawkins’s and Code’s transgressions met the elements of the charged crimes. In this context, “only” is an understatement. SDNY prosecutors are regarded by many in the legal community as the country’s best litigators. Also, federal prosecutors prevail in about nine out of every 10 trials.
Despite those odds, the defense attorneys contend that their clients did not commit crimes. One key defense is the insinuation that Dawkins was naively duped by a manipulative undercover federal agent. As first revealed by SI’s Jake Fischer and Jon Wertheim, Dawkins received substantial financial assistance and continuous encouragement from a man who claimed to be a New Jersey real estate magnet with a desire to become a dealmaker in sports business. That man, who went by the pseudonym Jeff DeAngelo, in reality worked for the FBI. Yet to Dawkins, DeAngelo was the real deal. DeAngelo provided Dawkins with a duffle bag full of cash, access to a luxury yacht and other tangible benefits that significantly aided Dawkins and LOYD. DeAngelo also introduced Dawkins to another undercover agent posing as a wealthy investor. Her name was Jill.
Defense attorneys have not formally argued entrapment, which if successfully argued would prove that the FBI, through DeAngelo and Jill, induced Dawkins (and by extension Code) to commit crimes that they would not have otherwise committed. The counter-argument is that Dawkins and Code pursued meetings with numerous persons in the basketball industry and likely would have bribed coaches irrespective of the enabling roles played by the undercover agents.
Government witness Marty Blazer “names names” . . .
This week’s testimony of Blazer—the government witness who, to minimize the fallout of his own crimes, is testifying against Dawkins and Code—attracted media headlines. According to journalists who were attending the trial, Blazer dished out a number of newsworthy points while on the witness stand. Some of those points seem outside the immediate scope of the case against Dawkins and Code.
For instance, Blazer recalled paying college football players back in the 2000s. Although he didn’t name the supposedly bribed players, they apparently included one who was drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft. Others played at major D1 programs, including Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Northwestern, North Carolina and Alabama.
Blazer’s remarks about college football do not directly help the government prove that Dawkins and Code bribed college basketball coaches. The government doesn’t contend that Dawkins and Code participated in a college football bribery scheme. That said, Blazer admitting to bribery in college sports signals to jurors that Dawkins and Code were in business with a corrupt person. Blazer’s claims will also be of interest to the NCAA, though the NCAA will need more than accusations—particularly for accusations related to supposed incidents from years ago.
Blazer also testified that former USC assistant coach Tony Bland, who has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, received a $13,000 payment as an inducement to persuade five-star high school basketball star Marvin Bagley III to select USC. Bagley, who now plays for the Sacramento Kings, spurned USC and other colleges to attend Duke.
In addition, Blazer offered alleged context to an FBI video of a meeting in 2017. During the meeting, Clemson assistant coach Steve Smith talks to Dawkins and DeAngelo about potential payments to top recruit Zion Williamson, the South Carolina native who later selected Duke. Blazer testified that Smith attempted to ascertain how much money he needed to pay Williamson’s family so that Williamson would attend Clemson. The video is important to the prosecution because it confirms that Dawkins engaged in bribe-related misconduct. The video is newsworthy to media because it names Williamson, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
Blazer also raised suspicions about Arizona head coach Sean Miller. In a video played in court, Dawkins is heard discussing his relationship with Emanuel “Book” Richardson, who was an assistant coach at Arizona before being fired. Richardson has pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy and is thought to have provided evidence to help the government. Dawkins speculates that Miller likely knew that Richardson was taking bribes. In his testimony, Blazer insisted that Miller “was taking care of everything for Deandre Ayton and his family.”
. . . but there are major questions about Blazer’s credibility
How believable is Blazer? On one hand, he testified under oath. If Blazer knowingly lied under oath, he could face perjury criminal charges. Perjury charges could also undo his plea deals. Also, some of Blazer’s testimony was bolstered by FBI-obtained videos. These dynamics suggest he was telling the truth.
On the other hand, Blazer has lied before and lied to the government. He has also engaged in various corrupt acts, including misappropriation of client funds. Blazer is simply not a very credible person. Even when delivered while under oath, his accusations against others should be taken with a grain of salt.
Blazer also testified as part of a plea deal. The more information he provides—and the more useful he seems to the prosecution—the better for him. It’s possible Blazer might have exaggerated so he would be regarded as a star witness.
Even if Blazer thought that he was telling the truth on the witness stand, that doesn’t mean he knew the truth. Thinking that one is telling the truth and knowing the truth can be two different things. Blazer might have offered his honest impressions and memories about high-profile persons in college sports. The degree to which those impressions were based on tangible evidence and accurate recollection is unknown.
Lastly, Blazer and other witnesses mentioning various players’ and coaches’ names in the context of possible bribes does not prove that those players, their families or coaches received bribes. The case is not about proving claims outside of those necessary to convict Dawkins and Code. If the prosecution is successful, accompanying evidence and testimony will prove that Dawkins and Code committed crimes. It won’t prove that Bagley, Williamson, Miller and other persons broke laws or NCAA rules.
SI will keep you updated on major trial developments.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.