Key Informant Cooperating With NCAA in Federal College Basketball Probe

It could be a potential game-changer in the NCAA's ability to advance infractions cases against schools in the corruption scandal.
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The key informant at the center of the federal investigation into college basketball is cooperating with the NCAA, according to a letter from association officials obtained by Sports Illustrated—a development that could be a potential game-changer in the NCAA’s ongoing probe of corruption within the sport.

The cooperation has come from Pittsburgh-based financial adviser Louis Martin “Marty” Blazer III, the man who triggered the federal investigation of college basketball as an FBI informant. The letter, which was submitted Friday to federal judge Edgardo Ramos in advance of Blazer’s Feb. 6 sentencing on charges of securities fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and making false statements and documents, notes that Blazer has had “numerous interviews” with NCAA Enforcement staff.

“During those interviews the information provided by Mr. Blazer materially assisted the NCAA and member institutions in investigating potential rules violations,” wrote Jonathan Duncan, NCAA vice president of enforcement. “… Mr. Blazer agreed to continue assisting the NCAA in its investigations after he is sentenced on Feb. 6.”

NCAA letter

In late 2014, Blazer entered into a cooperation agreement with the government, ultimately leading federal investigators to the bribery-based underground economy in college basketball. Thereafter, he crisscrossed the country serving as an undercover cooperating witness during the FBI’s investigation of the sport, which went public on Sept. 26, 2017. Blazer recorded meetings and conversations with both audio and video equipment, and doled out thousands of dollars in under-the-table payments.

The probe resulted in 10 men being convicted of crimes, including four former college assistant coaches, in addition to former shoe-company employees and others.

Now, Blazer’s cooperation with the NCAA could greatly enhance the association’s ability to advance infractions cases against some schools already implicated in the corruption scandal, and could potentially open up new cases against other schools. Documentation of his dealings with coaches, agents and assorted middlemen may provide some of the tangible evidence the NCAA has lacked, on account of a federal judge shutting down access to the vast majority of evidence government investigators have collected.

NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn declined comment Friday, citing the association’s policy of not commenting on current, pending or potential investigations.

Blazer's involvement in the case was widespread. According to a letter from his attorney, Martin Dietz, filed Thursday in federal court, during the course of Blazer’s work with the feds from 2014-17, “payments were made to or on behalf of assistant basketball coaches at the following universities: University of Auburn, University of Alabama, Arizona University, University of Louisville, Creighton University, Texas Christian University, University of Southern California, Oklahoma State University. Mr. Blazer also made payments to third parties to benefit other athletes who attended other universities.”

Multiple sources told Sports Illustrated that Blazer’s most recent meeting with NCAA investigators came in late 2019 in a Pittsburgh hotel room. Those sources said representatives from multiple schools implicated by Blazer in the basketball scandal were present for that interview at the NCAA’s invitation, but were not allowed to ask questions.

At present, the NCAA has delivered Notices of Allegations directly tied to the FBI investigation to at least five schools: North Carolina State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, USC and Texas Christian. Creighton has neither confirmed nor denied receiving an NOA. Other schools currently under investigation include Auburn, Louisville, LSU, Arizona and Alabama. There likely are additional ongoing investigations pertaining to the scandal.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York also filed a leniency letter on behalf of Blazer on Jan. 30. The letter praised Blazer as the catalyst for its investigation.

“To say that Blazer’s cooperation was helpful to the Government would be an understatement,” wrote U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman. “Blazer’s cooperation was absolutely critical in investigating and prosecuting a series of precedent setting public corruption cases relating to corruption in college athletics. Blazer met with the Government an extraordinary amount of times—often in person and typically for multiple hours at a time—and he always made his best efforts to provide truthful, accurate information and to carry out any operations at the direction of law enforcement to the best of his ability.”

Blazer, referenced in the original U.S. Attorney’s Office complaint as “Cooperating Witness 1,” leveraged a connection with Atlanta-based clothier Rashan Michel to meet college basketball assistant coaches. Among those Blazer met—and allegedly paid off to ostensibly direct future NBA clients his way—were former Auburn assistant Chuck Person, former Alabama administrative staff member Kobie Baker, former Oklahoma State and South Carolina assistant Lamont Evans, former Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson and former USC assistant Tony Bland.

Person, Evans, Richardson and Bland all were fired and subsequently entered into plea agreements after being charged with crimes. Baker, a former NCAA Director of Enforcement, was fired at Alabama the day after the federal investigation went public but was not charged with a crime.

At the trial of U.S. v. Evans, Blazer testified that he also worked with aspiring agent Christian Dawkins and Adidas consultant Merl Code Jr., in a variety of bribery schemes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its leniency letter to Ramos that “based in no small part on Blazer’s testimony, Dawkins and Code were ultimately convicted after a two-and-a-half week trial…”

Blazer’s information could also spill over to college football. In the 2019 trial of Dawkins and Code, Blazer testified that he paid football players from seven different schools in violation of NCAA rules. Blazer testified that he made payments anywhere from hundreds to several thousands of dollars to players at Alabama, Michigan, North Carolina, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn State and Pittsburgh.

The U.S. Attorney’s leniency letter made particular mention of an assistant coach at Penn State who allegedly sought Blazer’s assistance in making a payment to a player’s father in 2009 or ’10. A meeting took place in which Blazer agreed to pay the father, writing a check for $10,000 so the player would stay at Penn State instead of entering the NFL draft. Ultimately, the player entered the draft and the money was repaid.

The letter also states that the assistant coach set up numerous meetings between Blazer and Penn State players, many of whom became his clients when they turned professional, and at least three of whom Blazer paid while they were in college. “Some of the meetings took place in the coach’s house or office,” the letter notes.

The letter states that Blazer said he never paid the assistant coach directly, but did help him get a free hotel room in Miami and also helped arrange a discount deal on an SUV in Texas.

A 2019 Yahoo Sports story identified the then-Penn State assistant coach as Larry Johnson Sr., who has been an assistant at Ohio State under both Urban Meyer and current coach Ryan Day. The player allegedly involved in the $10,000 payment was former Nittany Lion defensive lineman Aaron Maybin.

“That is not accurate at all,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports last April in response to Blazer’s testimony. “That is absolutely false.”

Blazer’s name previously had surfaced publicly in connection to a scandal at North Carolina involving impermissible payments to Tar Heels football players. Five people were criminally indicted under North Carolina’s agent inducement law, but Blazer was not among those charged. The UNC football program was hit with major NCAA sanctions after that scandal broke, resulting in a postseason ban and the firing of coach Butch Davis.

Although the payments to football players that Blazer alleged on the witness stand would predate the NCAA’s four-year statute of limitations, one expert on enforcement cases told Sports Illustrated that the NCAA has the latitude to waive that statute if it has proof of egregious violations. 

One attorney who was involved in the FBI cases was sharply critical of the government for playing ball with Blazer.

“Marty Blazer misappropriated millions of dollars from professional athletes for his own benefit,” said Craig Mordock, attorney for Richardson, the fired Arizona assistant. “Somehow the government sees fit to grant him leniency because he was able to convince Christian Dawkins to entrap several college basketball coaches in a sting operation for $20,000 of the government’s money.

“Couple this with the same prosecutors not only ignoring but protecting similar conduct by Nike as revealed in the Michael Avenatti trial and it is hard for anyone to stomach their brand of justice.”