A key figure in the ongoing corruption scandal at the Los Angeles County assessor's office said he gave cash and perks worth thousands of dollars to two USC athletes while they were still in school, actions that could violate college sports rules.
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.
USC officials held McKnight out of the 2009 Emerald Bowl against Boston College while they investigated. That season, the player had been the team's leading rusher with 1,014 yards. McKnight left school early, entering the NFL draft in 2010.
That same year, the NCAA handed down some of the most severe disciplinary actions ever imposed on a university when it found that former USC running back Reggie Bush and basketball star O.J. Mayo had accepted improper gifts from outside sports marketers and agents between 2006 and 2008. The football team has just completed a two-year ban from postseason play and the university remains on probation.
In February, Schenter appeared at the center of the corruption investigation that has roiled county government. He told The Times that he granted improper tax breaks to wealthy Westside property owners in a bid to drum up campaign contributions for Noguez.
So far, Schenter, 49, is the only person charged by the district attorney's office in the ongoing criminal probe. He has pleaded not guilty to 60 counts of falsifying records and is free on bail. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
In response to a request from The Times, the assessor's office released copies of hundreds of Schenter's work emails, including attachments, that contain rich detail about Schenter's mostly after-hours efforts as an entrepreneur.
A September 2010 email Schenter sent from one of his private business accounts to his work address had an attachment titled "Proposed 2008 Adjustments to Income" that names Jefferson and McKnight as people who received payments.
A second attachment, "2008 IRS Business Deductions," lists 12 payments totaling $3,730 to "Davon" or "DJ." Jefferson is the only person on the list of payees with those initials.
Also listed are 36 payments worth $30,460 to "Joe." It's unclear whether any of those payments were meant for the football player because, according to the email, there are two potential recipients with that first name, McKnight and Joe Galliani, one of Schenter's business associates. Galliani did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
There are no emails from Jefferson, McKnight or anyone other than Schenter that would confirm he actually made the payments.
In other emails, Schenter describes efforts to sell companies glowing, animated versions of their logos to be used in advertising. Among examples of the animations contained in the emails are flashing images of McKnight running with a football and celebrating with USC teammates.
Schenter also discusses how he hoped to use the USC athletes to help market his products.
In a few messages, he wrote about his plans to build sports-themed vans equipped with hot tubs to promote his business. "I am just finishing a USC Basketball Bus ... because I have direct access to a couple of the players (nothing on paper)," Schenter wrote in one attachment.
He went on to say he intended to wrap the bus in gigantic posters of Jefferson and Mayo and noted that USC had told him he could not. But he wasn't deterred.
Schenter joked that USC stood for "Under Scott's Control" and bragged that the school could not stop him.
"What are they going to do to me?" he asked. "Will the NCAA fine me (yeah right)?"
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times