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Bad News for Bush

Times Staff Writer

As the hours ticked down toward the NFL draft, Reggie Bush hurried to various promotional appearances around the city, flanked by security guards, ducking tough questions the way he usually sidesteps tacklers.

As news swirled Friday that he wouldn’t be the No. 1 pick, the former USC tailback faced an even touchier issue -- new details about a controversial relationship between his family and a sports marketing company.

The lawyer for New Era Sports & Entertainment alleges that Bush’s stepfather, LaMar Griffin, helped start the company with the idea that Bush would become its first star client, but the partnership turned ugly in December when Bush looked elsewhere for an agent.

By that time, the Griffins owed New Era tens of thousands in cash disbursements and unpaid rent, attorney Brian Watkins said, and the relationship quickly disintegrated into unreturned phone calls, threatened lawsuits and a tense settlement meeting at a 2nd Street office in Santa Monica several weeks ago.

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With Bush and his mother seated at a table beside their representatives, Watkins said he and a New Era executive were frisked as they entered the room, “to make sure we didn’t have any tape-recording devices on us.”

In another development Friday, Watkins released what he said was the content of a past text message from Bush assuring New Era executives they would be repaid.

Meanwhile, Bush’s representatives -- who have declined to comment on the purported business relationship -- continued to assert that New Era is trying to extort millions from the athlete.

“We identified their scheme months ago and collected written evidence over the course of the months,” said David Cornwell, the family’s attorney. “And we provided that evidence to the NFL Players Assn. and NFL Security.”

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Cornwell said the league has subsequently notified a number of teams that Bush was the “target of improper threats.”

In a brief statement released Friday, the NFL said only that it has advised Cornwell to “consider referring these matters to law enforcement authorities” and would continue to monitor the situation. The NFLPA told the Associated Press it was investigating David Caravantes, a San Diego agent with connections to New Era.

As the back-and-forth grows more heated, it seems that no one -- not the New Era executive with a criminal record, not the high-profile agents who eventually won the derby to represent Bush but have histories of their own -- has escaped scrutiny.

Even USC could suffer penalties as the result of an investigation into the matter by the Pacific 10 Conference and the NCAA. And the last few weeks cannot have been easy for an athlete known for his dazzling speed, blink-of-an-eye moves and, until now, squeaky-clean reputation.

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According to Watkins, the saga began in late 2004 when LaMar Griffin spoke to Lloyd Lake -- a friend of Bush’s from the neighborhood -- about starting a sports marketing company. They made an unlikely pair. Griffin is a school security officer and minister, Lake a convicted felon who, according to court documents, has connections to a violent street gang known as the Emerald Hill Bloods.

Neither Lake nor Bush’s family could be reached for comment.

In October 2004, the two approached a third man, Michael Michaels, a Sycuan Indian tribe member who worked for the tribe’s development corporation. They spoke in a box suite after a Charger game. New Era was born.

According to Watkins, Griffin soon began asking for favors.

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First came $28,000 to help repay family debts, Watkins said. Then, in spring of 2005, the Griffins -- LaMar, wife Denise and teenage son Jovan -- moved into the three-bedroom house east of San Diego that Michaels had just bought for $757,500. Watkins said the family agreed to pay a monthly rent of $4,500.

Around that time, New Era sought to enlist the Sycuan tribe as a partner. A tribe spokesman confirmed that Griffin visited the reservation with Michaels at a time when the proposal was being discussed.

Watkins said Griffin made two visits, each time wearing the same No. 5 USC jersey that he always wore to Trojan football games.

The tribe ultimately decided not to get involved and, for New Era, things quickly turned sour.

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The Griffins had not paid rent, Watkins said, and were promising to make good on the debt once their son signed a multimillion-dollar NFL contract and New Era began handling his endorsement deals.

“It was always, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll pay you,’ ” Watkins said. “You can take it out of our profits.’ ”

But in December, with the Trojans preparing to face Texas in the Rose Bowl, the back rent approached $54,000 and Michaels could no longer reach the Griffins by telephone.

“Then, an article came out in the paper that Reggie had narrowed his choices to five agents and he didn’t mention his dad’s company,” Watkins said. “The next thing you know, he’s hired an agent.”

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Bush hired sports agent Joel Segal, instead of Caravantes or another agent arranged by New Era. He had also retained Reebok consultant Mike Ornstein. Michaels and Lake began asking the Griffins to repay $300,000 -- the alleged sum of unpaid rent, cash disbursements and other monies poured into New Era.

At some point, Watkins claimed, Bush tried to assuage New Era with a text message that read, in part, “Nobody is trying to screw u.”

Attorneys for both sides began settlement negotiations, Watkins said. Cornwell refused to comment on whether discussions took place. Watkins said Cornwell offered six figures. Watkins also provided The Times with a copy of a Feb. 13 letter he claims to have sent to Cornwell, asking for $3.2 million.

“Please advise if it is your intention to involve the University in these settlement negotiations,” the letter reads. “We would not object to their participation as we understand their wanting to be involved due to the fact this matter was ongoing during their Championship season of 2004 as well as the entire season of 2005, and any lawsuit filed might have an adverse effect on them.”

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There have been no claims that USC knew about the Griffins’ connection to New Era. Coach Pete Carroll has said he was unaware of their living arrangements.

Also in February, Lake was returned to prison for a probation violation after allegedly beating up his girlfriend.

Big-time agents have been almost smug in questioning New Era’s pedigree. Yet, a decade ago, when Ornstein worked for the NFL, he pleaded guilty in a scheme to defraud the league of $350,000 and was sentenced to six months in a community correction center, ordered to pay more than $160,000 in restitution, and placed on five years’ probation. Segal was fined and suspended by the NFL Players Assn. for providing money under an assumed name to a Florida State player in 1993.

Ornstein declined to comment for this article. Segal could not be reached.

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The meeting at Ornstein’s office in Santa Monica -- the one at which Watkins claimed he was frisked -- included Segal and Cornwell, the attorney said. It did not produce a settlement. By early April, the attorney had served an eviction notice on the Griffins, a copy of which he provided to The Times.

If it can be shown the Griffins received “extra benefits,” Bush might be deemed retroactively ineligible and USC might have to forfeit games from last season, even if the school knew nothing about the violations.

Ron Barker, a Pacific 10 associate commissioner for enforcement, said that such cases can be difficult for investigators looking at a number of questions.

“We have to hear the whole story,” he said Friday. “Did the family get any type of preferential treatment? Did the landlord let it go and not try to collect like they would for a normal person? Did they not evict for a year when it would normally be three months?”

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On Friday, Watkins expressed anger at allegations of extortion and reports that Caravantes was being investigated by the NFL.

Caravantes was one of the agents New Era interviewed to handle Bush’s contract. Watkins said he had nothing to do with New Era’s attempt to reach a settlement.

Watkins also repeated an earlier vow to file a $3.2-million lawsuit against Bush and the Griffins.

In New York, hours before it was announced Bush would not be the No. 1 pick, he made the rounds accompanied by other top draft prospects. Texas quarterback Vince Young said the running back seemed unbothered: “He’s cool and joking around.”

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But USC quarterback Matt Leinart wasn’t so sure.

“I’m not going to talk to him about it, because that’s the last thing he wants to hear from his friends and teammates,” Leinart said. “He’s going to handle that after the draft.”

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Wharton reported from Los Angeles, Klein from New York. Times staff writers Sam Farmer, from New York, and Tony Perry, from San Diego, also contributed to this report.

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