The allegations are contained among hundreds of Scott Schenter's county work emails that suggest the former appraiser provided football star Joe McKnight with a car and an airline ticket, and basketball player Davon Jefferson with about $3,700 in cash. The Times obtained the emails from the assessor's office under the California Public Records Act.
After The Times asked about the alleged payments, officials at USC said they immediately informed the NCAA about the claims.
"We are dedicated to playing and competing the right way," USC Athletic Director Pat Haden wrote in an email to the newspaper.
The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from accepting benefits from marketing representatives or agents or "extra benefits" based on their athletic ability. In general, gifts of cars, plane tickets and cash from someone who is not an established family friend would be violations, said NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn, who declined to speak specifically about Schenter.
If the NCAA were to determine that players accepted improper gifts, their school could face discipline, she said, adding that the association has a four-year statute of limitations on rule violations. The college sports body imposes sanctions on universities ranging from public reprimands to bans on postseason play.
Schenter, a former assessor's employee, has been charged with giving improper tax breaks to wealthy Angelenos as part of a larger investigation into the office of Assessor John Noguez, who was forced to take an extended leave of absence. But Schenter's emails point to his role in a second, seemingly unrelated scandal that has plagued the USC athletic department in recent years.
Administrators investigated McKnight and Schenter's relationships in 2009, after the running back was seen driving a $27,000 Land Rover registered to Schenter. School officials said they "fully investigated the matter" at the time and turned their findings over to the NCAA. The disciplinary body "accepted the report, and no violation was processed," according to Haden's statement.
Among Schenter's emails is a 2009 message from an agent for Mercury Insurance saying the company believed a Chevrolet Monte Carlo listed on Schenter's policy was in McKnight's possession.
A May 2008 email from Delta Air Lines to Schenter includes a receipt for his purchase of a $625 flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The listed passenger: "Joe McKnight." The football player is from Louisiana.
Schenter, in a brief interview at a recent court hearing, told The Times that he gave money to Jefferson and the Monte Carlo to McKnight, who he said then wrecked the vehicle. Schenter did not return messages seeking additional information, including whether he gave McKnight the airline ticket or additional money.
It's unclear why Schenter would help the two athletes, or where the $80,000 per year property appraiser would have obtained the money. But in the emails, Schenter says he was trying to start several private business ventures and hoped Jefferson and McKnight would help him market them. His connection, if any, to USC is also unclear. He describes himself in the emails as a fan of the University of Washington, a Pac 12 rival to USC.
An agent for McKnight, who now plays for the New York Jets, did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls. A Jets spokesman said he would not pass the newspaper's questions along to McKnight.
Jefferson, who has been playing basketball overseas, could not be reached. His agent did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Questions about Schenter's role with USC athletes first emerged in the records in November 2009, when the insurance agent asked about the wrecked Monte Carlo. No response by Schenter is contained in the emails.
A week after that message, a Times reporter saw McKnight driving away from a USC football practice in a 2006 Land Rover. A check with the DMV showed the vehicle was registered to Schenter. USC said McKnight had provided the school with written documentation that he would be driving the vehicle.
McKnight told The Times in 2009 that he had not personally driven the SUV and did not know Schenter. The athlete said then that his girlfriend was Schenter's secretary, suggesting she had borrowed her boss' vehicle.
Schenter sent an email to the newspaper at the time saying that McKnight's girlfriend was a longtime family friend and an employee of one of his small businesses, and that he had simply helped her out by purchasing and registering the vehicle because her parents could not qualify for a car loan.