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USC stays silent about NCAA investigation

Weeks have dragged into months, and months into years, since USC was rocked by allegations that star football player Reggie Bush broke rules by accepting cash, a car and free housing from two businessmen who hoped to profit from him after he turned professional.

Now, the still-unresolved case has become a clinic in the limits to self-policing in college sports. The lesson that has taken on greater significance with more recent accusations against Trojans basketball Coach Tim Floyd and his former marquee player, O.J. Mayo, which also involve purported payments and gifts.

USC finds its reputation on the line, not just as a sports powerhouse but as an institution whose academic achievements have come to eclipse its storied athletic traditions under the leadership of President Steven Sample.

And yet Sample and others at USC have maintained an enduring silence on the allegations and have chosen not to directly interview some of the key accusers.

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The governing body of major college sports, the NCAA, has broadened its investigation to determine whether USC lost “institutional control” over its athletics program. It is examining whether USC administrators knew of any transgressions, or should have known by being vigilant.

The punishment could be severe -- a reduction in sports scholarships, the voiding of past victories and championships, and a ban on lucrative television appearances and postseason play.

The NCAA moves notoriously slowly, but it expects swift action by schools that may have reason to suspect violations, experts say. Colleges routinely report allegations to the association, and are free to conduct their own investigations and mete out punishment to staffers and student athletes without waiting for the NCAA.

But with USC there are scant outward signs of an intense internal probe.

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Lloyd Lake, one of the would-be sports marketers who brought allegations against Bush, has not spoken directly with anyone from USC, according to his attorney, Brian Watkins.

The lawyer said the school did not try to make contact with his client until last fall, more than two years after the accusations became public and 11 months after NCAA investigators interviewed him. A letter to Watkins from a university attorney, a copy of which has been obtained by The Times, supports that claim.

Lake was willing to talk, Watkins said, but USC never followed up on its request.

Some of Lake’s assertions go to the heart of institutional control. He has said he believed USC knew about his relationship with Bush because the aspiring marketer had several social encounters with running backs coach Todd McNair. Lake further alleges that he had overheard a telephone conversation in which football Coach Pete Carroll told Bush’s stepfather to “put everything in order, to have a lease agreement” for a house that Lake’s former partner in the marketing venture, Michael Michaels, provided to the player’s family, allegedly rent-free.

And Watkins says the coaches also must have known about a $3,000-a-month Los Angeles condo Bush lived in that Lake and Michaels allegedly paid for.

Carroll has said he knew nothing about the Bush family’s living arrangements. McNair has said he might have met Lake at an after-hours function but otherwise did not know him and had no knowledge of anything improper.

Meanwhile, USC also has not tried to question Louis Johnson, who has accused Floyd and Mayo, though it did sit in on NCAA interviews with him, said Johnson’s attorney, David Murphy.

“It did seem kind of bizarre that they didn’t seek to speak to my client directly,” Murphy said of the school. “As far as I know, there has not been a single phone call.”

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Rarely has a sports program been hit with fresh volleys of serious allegations in the midst of an ongoing NCAA probe. But three years into the USC saga, and a year after the initial accusations against Mayo opened a new front, the investigation is lumbering along and exactly what the school might be doing to bring it to a conclusion is largely unknown.

NCAA head Myles Brand has made it clear from the beginning of his six-year tenure that college presidents must play a hands-on role in athletics and be held accountable if the programs stray from good conduct.

In his 18 years as president, Sample has won praise for reversing the view of USC as a jock-centric campus with modest academic ambitions. He has fattened the university’s endowment, boosted its instructional requirements and attracted better students.

But blockbuster sports remain ingrained in USC’s culture. Under Carroll, the football program has revived its glory years and become a well-oiled revenue engine. How much the school values football is reflected in Carroll’s $4.4 million compensation package, the richest of any private university employee in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Floyd also has taken USC’s once-lackluster basketball program to new heights. His signing of Mayo in 2006 was an eye-popping coup, although the guard bolted for the NBA after one season.

Carroll, Floyd and USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett have not responded to interview requests.

Last week, at the opening event of a seven-stop “Coaches Tour” for boosters, Carroll and Floyd sidestepped the one question from the Irvine audience about the NCAA’s investigation. Carroll said scrutiny was the price “for being on top.” Floyd stayed mum.

USC general counsel Carol Mauch Amir says it is Sample’s policy not to comment on NCAA probes. In response to repeated inquiries by The Times, Mauch Amir said in a written statement that the university has been “vigorously investigating” all the allegations with the association and Pacific 10 Conference, and that the cooperative effort has included joint interviews with nearly 50 witnesses.

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The school would have participated in more interviews but had been excluded from them, in some instances by the interviewee’s attorneys, Mauch Amir said.

“We continue to operate under the fundamental American right that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, so we are working diligently to ensure that we have all the facts before reaching any conclusions,” she added. “Our decision not to respond publicly to the allegations made in the media against USC, our coaches and our student-athletes simply reflects our responsibility to protect the integrity of the investigative process and to comply with all NCAA regulations.”

Mauch Amir would not elaborate on her statement.

If USC has adopted a wait-and-see attitude in the investigation, it could be hoping that any misconduct did not extend beyond the agents and players, leaving the university in the clear, one expert on NCAA investigations said.

“The temptation there is greater to just let it play out and see if it comes back to you,” said the expert, who asked not to be named because of his sensitive work with schools.

He said another possibility is that USC was waiting to learn if the NCAA unearthed anything that would contradict what the coaches and other staff members told school officials.

NCAA bylaws forbid schools from publicly disclosing information from the association’s investigations until the probes are complete. But colleges are not barred from going public with their own findings, including material that might exonerate the school, NCAA officials say.

The bylaws also state that if a college or individual involved in an NCAA investigation makes information public, then the school, the individual or the association “may confirm, correct or deny the information.”

“We don’t put a gag order on a school,” said NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn. “And they can do their own complete investigation. . . . It’s an incredibly common practice for schools to self-impose penalties.”

A notable example involved the University of Oklahoma, where administrators in 2006 quickly dismissed two starting football players who allegedly accepted pay from a car dealer for work they didn’t perform. The NCAA still penalized the university for not monitoring the athletes more closely, but its appeals committee later eased the punishment, citing in part the school’s prompt removal of the players.

Dave Czesniuk, operations director for Northeastern University’s Sport in Society program, which offers instruction in athletics leadership and ethics, said that “transparency is of huge importance” for schools in USC’s straits, and that campus presidents should lead the search for truth.

“Do you always just take this reactionary approach, and just have damage control? No,” Czesniuk said. “What a lot of presidents would do is get right at it, just for the simple sake of getting control of their own backyard.”

Lake and Michaels have said they gave Bush and his family a total of about $300,000 in inducements as part of an arrangement for the player to work with them after he joined the NFL.

Now with the New Orleans Saints, Bush has denied any wrongdoing but reportedly has refused to be interviewed by the NCAA. His attorney did not respond to interview requests from The Times.

Lake is suing Bush over the purported marketing deal. Bush has settled a lawsuit brought by Michaels.

Last October, USC attorney Kelly Bendell sent a letter to attorney Watkins requesting that Lake, his sister and mother submit to interviews with the school and Pac 10 officials. The letter said USC “was not allowed to participate” in NCAA interviews of the three but did not specify who excluded the school or why.

Asked about the letter, Watkins told The Times that he responded to Bendell and had been prepared to make his client available for an interview, but she never got back to him. Mauch Amir declined to discuss the letter, as did a Pac-10 official.

A person close to the investigation, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said a USC representative was part of an attempt by the NCAA and Pac-10 to contact Lake in the first week his allegations were public. But Watkins said he only heard from the association and conference.

Neither has USC sought to interview Johnson, who alleges that Floyd delivered an envelope full of $100 bills to the man who helped steer Mayo to the basketball team, said Murphy, Johnson’s lawyer.

Johnson’s account of the alleged 2007 payment became public earlier this month, but his other accusations against Mayo and an associate, Rodney Guillory, surfaced a year ago. He said Guillory received $200,000 to $250,000 in cash and gifts to lure Mayo to a Northern California sports agency, and that some of the money was funneled to the player before and during his USC tenure. (Guillory has also been questioned by federal authorities about his ties to a non-profit charity.)

USC knew before it recruited Mayo that Guillory was accused of inappropriate contact with former Trojan Jeff Trepagnier and another player in 2000. The school says the NCAA and Pac-10 investigated Mayo before the player signed scholarship papers with USC and found nothing to disqualify him. Mayo, who recently completed an outstanding rookie season with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, has denied doing anything improper.

NCAA officials, citing confidentiality rules, would not discuss anything about its investigation of USC. The association is a voluntary organization, a tax-exempt nonprofit that lacks the authority of a governmental investigative agency, such as the power to compel testimony through subpoenas. However, schools must cooperate in NCAA investigations as a condition of the membership, and there has been no indication that USC has not done so.

Despite its commanding public profile, its own tax-exempt status, and its receipt of millions in government funding, USC is not subject to the sort of disclosure laws that can force public colleges to release information. The same is true for the NCAA, although it does make its investigative findings public in a final report.

Former and current NCAA officials say it is always smarter for colleges to seize the initiative on corruption allegations, if only because the association often rewards such behavior with lighter penalties, as it did with Oklahoma.

“If a school feels there has been a violation, or a serious potential violation, the NCAA rules require a school to go forward, to report itself,” said Jack Friedenthal, a George Washington University law professor who sits on the association’s appeals committee. He stressed that his comments were general in nature, and not directed at USC.

“There is an obligation for the school to investigate and to work with the NCAA to clear up matters,” Friedenthal said.

J. Brent Clark, a one-time NCAA investigator who practices law in Oklahoma, agreed, but said he was not surprised that the USC inquiry has taken so long.

“The NCAA is under no real sense of urgency to wrap this up, even though justice delayed is justice denied,” Clark said. “The NCAA is a de-facto cartel, and its product is big-time college football. USC is a major component of that. The NCAA doesn’t want USC to be off television or ineligible for bowls.”

Nevertheless, if USC suspects that any violations have occurred, it would be wise to jump on them, and not take a back seat to the NCAA. “Self-investigation and self-imposition of penalties is really the salvation of USC,” Clark said. “Otherwise, it’s going to be much worse for them.”

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Inside the investigation

A reference of names included in this report:

* Reggie Bush: New Orleans Saints running back who won the Heisman Trophy while playing for USC in 2005. He settled a lawsuit related to allegations that his family lived rent free during a time he played for the Trojans but has denied wrongdoing.

* Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels: San Diego men who wanted to launch a sports marketing agency with Bush as their marquee client. Lake says he made payments to Bush and is suing him. Michaels owned a home in which Bush’s family allegedly lived without paying rent. He also sued but has reached a settlement.

* Brian Watkins: Lake’s attorney, who says USC has never spoken directly to his client.

* Pete Carroll: USC’s championship-winning football coach who guides a program that generates millions of dollars in revenue for the school. The NCAA is looking into whether he or his coaches knew or should have known about Bush allegedly receiving improper benefits.

* O.J. Mayo: Was among the nation’s best prospects when he made the surprising choice to play for USC. Spent one season, 2007-08, with the Trojans, and just completed his rookie season with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

* Rodney Guillory: An advisor to Mayo who allegedly funneled money from a sports agency to the star guard. His association with another USC player in 2000 was also investigated by the NCAA.

* Tim Floyd: USC’s men’s basketball coach, who brought Mayo to USC in what was considered a coup. This year, he directed the Trojans to a Pacific 10 Conference tournament championship and a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. He has been accused of giving cash to Guillory.

* Louis Johnson: An associate of Guillory’s, whom he identified as an agents’ runner who showered Mayo with cash and gifts. Most recently, he accused USC’s Floyd of giving Guillory an envelope filled with $100 bills.

* David Murphy: One of Louis Johnson’s attorneys. He says USC has not asked for a one-on-one interview with his client.

* Carol Mauch Amir: USC’s general counsel. Coaches and athletic program officials refer all questions about the NCAA investigation to her.

* Steven Sample: USC president. He is credited with raising the university’s academic standing. He has ultimate responsibility for the school’s athletic program in the NCAA’s view.


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