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Lawyers debate legal theories as corruption scandal in college basketball continues

When Joon H. Kim unveiled the bribery and corruption case that has shaken college basketball during a news conference in September, the first question had nothing to do with the undercover FBI agents, wiretaps, hidden cameras or cash-filled envelopes.

“Who is the victim in this?” an unidentified person asked. “Because it looks like ... everyone is benefiting in some way financially. Players, coaches, the sportswear companies and the colleges. So who is the victim?”

Kim, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, responded that the four schools with assistant coaches charged — USC, Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State — were harmed. A few minutes later, he added: “All of us ... are victims of that type of conduct.”

Debate over the underlying legal theories hasn’t ebbed, even as a federal grand jury in New York issues subpoenas, the wide-ranging investigation continues and people familiar with the case expect more charges.

Steve Haney, a Michigan-based attorney representing would-be sports agent Christian Dawkins, one of the 10 defendants, believes the federal government is trying to enforce NCAA rules barring college athletes and their families from being paid.

“If we are going to federally criminalize alleged NCAA violations,” Haney said, “many AAU grass-roots coaches, shoe company executives and those at the highest administrative university level, including academic advisers, coaches, athletic directors and university presidents, should not sleep well tonight.”

Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia University law professor and former federal prosecutor, has a much different view.

“If you step out of the sports pages and treat this as a multibillion industry that has rules of competition, this is a bribery case,” he said. “The nouns and verbs are really, really interesting, but the core conduct that’s being laid out is just commercial bribery in a very sexy context.”

Richman dismissed doubts about the charges as “sports exceptionalism.” To him, prosecution of the basic accusations in the case is routine.

Prosecutors alleged USC associate head coach Tony Bland, who makes $300,000 a year, received a $13,000 bribe in exchange for steering Trojans players to use Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood, another defendant, when they left school for professional basketball.

“Bland said he had ‘something to do with’ all [USC] players and had ‘heavy influence’ over their decisions, including with respect to choosing agents and advisors,” the complaint said.

During a restaurant meeting in Los Angeles on Aug. 30 and at a gathering in a hotel room the next day, prosecutors said Bland, Dawkins and Sood facilitated the payment of $9,000 to relatives of two USC players. They were identified as Player-8 and Player-9.

All of that led to six federal charges against Bland, including conspiracy to commit bribery, honest services wire fraud and travel act conspiracy. The coach, on administrative leave from USC with his biography removed from the school’s website, retained Jeffrey Lichtman, the same high-powered New York attorney who represented John Gotti Jr. and Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.

Prosecutors said Arizona’s Book Richardson, Auburn’s Chuck Person and Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans also accepted bribes to direct players to certain agents and advisors. All have either been placed on leave or fired. The second scheme prosecutors outlined involved Adidas representatives allegedly paying players to attend colleges sponsored by the company and to endorse their products when they became professionals.

The complaint said the alleged bribery exposed the schools to “tangible economic harm, including monetary and other penalties imposed by the NCAA” and deprived them of their right to control the use of their assets, including how to allocate athletic scholarships. Two and a half pages of the 59-page complaint focused on how the payments would violate NCAA rules.

“Bribery is usually a function of incentive,” said B. David Ridpath, a former college administrator and professor of sports administration at Ohio University. “Let’s remove the incentive as much as possible. Letting kids profit off their name and likeness isn’t inherently bad and won’t taint the sanctity of college athletics.”

Many involved in college basketball see these sort of pay-for-play schemes as one of the sport’s open secrets. The difference is the NCAA doesn’t serve search warrants or subpoenas or run undercover operations.

“They found what everybody already knew was there,” said Alicia Jessop, a Pepperdine law professor. “There are much more sinister things going on in college basketball than giving some kid $10,000.

“But we don’t have a legal precedent for this in the realm of intercollegiate or amateur athletics. One of the defenses you’ll see raised is if the federal government is trying to enforce the NCAA’s bylaws or were real federal crimes committed.”

Michael Buckner, a Florida attorney who has been involved with numerous NCAA enforcement cases, was taken aback by how casually the rules seemed to be broken.

“Big-time athletic programs need to begin to look at themselves as multimillion dollar corporations — because that’s what they are now — and adapt more of a corporate compliance model,” he said.

The federal case will play out first. The 10 defendants were charged in complaints, not indicted by a grand jury. The indictments must be handed down by early November or the defendants will undergo a preliminary hearing. Those are rare in federal cases. Richman said using complaints is a way to slow the process and give defendants — and others implicated by the complaints, but not named in it — time to assess their positions.

“Presumably, some of the named people will cooperate,” he said.

An associate of one defendant said he is willing to “do whatever needs to be done to help himself however he can.”

The government could use staged entries of guilty pleas, search warrants and summoning witnesses to testify in front of the grand jury to increase pressure on reluctant defendants or targets of the investigation.

“The government early in the case has a greater need for cooperation,” said Behzad Mirhashem, a University of New Hampshire law professor and former criminal defense attorney. “Early on, there’s a high premium for cooperation.”

The four schools whose assistant coaches were charged received sweeping subpoenas in September; more are believed to have been issued. Former Louisville coach Rick Pitino got one. The FBI even interviewed Louisville freshman Brian Bowen, referred to in the complaint as Player-10. Miami coach Jim Larranaga, Coach-3 in the complaint, received a grand jury subpoena for emails, text messages and other records, and also talked with the FBI.

“There’s nothing there,” said Stuart Z. Grossman, Larranaga’s attorney. “We’re trying to get them to admit they made a mistake.”

The attorney sounded exasperated.

But most people linked to the scandal -- no matter how tenuously -- remain tight-lipped.

No one seems to know what will happen next. There is one certainty. This isn’t over.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

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