Corruption case against USC’s Tony Bland shows what government had — and didn’t
The floor-to-ceiling curtains were drawn in the sprawling penthouse suite as midnight approached and Tony Bland sank into the couch that, on video, blended into the low light.
Assistant coaches from some of the nation’s top college basketball programs slipped out of triple-digit temperatures on the Las Vegas Strip and into the opulent quarters at the Cosmopolitan Hotel earlier that day in July 2017. They heard a sales pitch from Christian Dawkins, chief executive of a fledgling sports management company, financial advisor Marty Blazer, and an investor from New Jersey named Jeff D’Angelo — every minute recorded by a hidden camera.
For the record:
12:45 p.m. May 28, 2019In an earlier version of this story, a partial quote was incorrectly attributed to Joon Kim. “We have your playbook,” was a direct quote from William Sweeney, assistant director in charge of the New York FBI office.
The men wanted the coaches to steer their top players toward Loyd Inc. — shorthand for Living Out Your Dreams — when they became professionals.
Two months later, FBI agents arrested Bland, then USC’s associate head coach, and nine other men after a two-year probe into college basketball corruption. During a televised news conference, Joon Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, warned would-be cheaters to come clean because “it’s better for you to be calling us than for us to be calling you.” William Sweeney, assistant director in charge of the New York FBI office, said “we have your playbook.”
Subpoenas were issued to major universities, big-name coaches and shoe companies. Authorities set up a tip line. Coaches not publicly linked to the probe retained lawyers. They wondered where the FBI would strike next.
The investigation ended with a handful of assistant coaches, shoe company employees and middlemen — none household names outside of college basketball — accepting plea bargains or being convicted and sentenced to shorter prison terms than prosecutors requested. Additionally, no head coaches or university administrators were arrested, charged or convicted, though defense attorneys tried — and failed — to compel Arizona coach Sean Miller and Louisiana State coach Will Wade to testify about allegations linking them to the scandal.
Bland was among four assistant coaches to take a deal, pleading guilty in January to conspiracy to commit bribery after originally being indicted on that charge plus honest services fraud, mail fraud conspiracy and violating the Travel Act. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 5. Prosecutors want Bland to serve six to 12 months in prison; his attorney asked U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos for probation.
A detailed account of how authorities built their case against Bland — and why some of the allegations fell apart — resides among a trove of videos, text messages, emails and transcripts of wiretapped calls introduced as evidence during the recent trial of Dawkins and former Adidas employee Merl Code.
A jury convicted Dawkins and Code of bribery charges this month, though they were found not guilty on a combined seven of 10 counts. Both men and Adidas employee Jim Gatto had been sentenced to several months in prison after being convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a related case last fall. Defense attorneys plan to appeal.
The material includes audio recordings and hidden camera video of the late-night meeting in the Las Vegas hotel suite almost two years ago.
Behind the easy laughter, drinks from the wet bar and Bland describing the flight from Los Angeles on a private jet that afternoon, all wasn’t as it seemed. D’Angelo was really an undercover FBI agent using a fake name and posing as deep-pocketed backer of the company. Blazer introduced D’Angelo to Dawkins as part of his cooperation with authorities after being charged with unrelated securities fraud.
Bland, oblivious to D’Angelo’s real identity, boasted about his sway over USC players.
“You know … I have some guys that I can bring in that I can just say, ‘This is what you’re [expletive] doing,’” Bland said. “And there’s other guys who we’ll have to work a little harder for, but we’ll still have a heavy influence on what they do.”
The coach had breakfast with top recruit Marvin Bagley that morning before flying to Las Vegas and sounded confident USC could land the program-changing player.
“If he’s at USC, you can — you will meet him [the] first day on campus,” Bland said. “This is the type of dude that, you get him, everybody will follow.”
The video shows Dawkins picking up a stack of cash — $13,000 provided by the undercover FBI agent — from the coffee table when the meeting ends. D’Angelo hands him a white envelope to hold the money. Bland hugs the agent, whose face is intentionally obscured in the video, and departs.
Christian Dawkins accepts $13,000 in cash from an undercover FBI agent during a meeting at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in July 2017.
Prosecutors alleged in the criminal complaint that Bland received the $13,000 as a bribe to direct USC players to the company. But bank records introduced in court show Dawkins deposited $8,900 in cash at a Bank of America ATM in Las Vegas the next day.
In the plea bargain, Bland, fired by USC in January 2018, admitted to getting $4,100. That’s the difference between the $13,000 and the amount Dawkins deposited.
Jeffrey Lichtman, Bland’s attorney, declined to comment. Steve Haney, who represents Dawkins, said the money belonged to the FBI, not his client, and noted the jury found him not guilty on four of six counts at the recent trial.
Several people with direct knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, told the Los Angeles Times that Bland received even less because Dawkins spent an additional $2,000 of the bribe cash at Gucci.
Dawkins testified earlier this month that he handed Bland “between a thousand and two thousand dollars” to spend at a club that night to celebrate a friend’s bachelor party.
“It was just money I had in my pocket basically,” Dawkins told the jury.
Real payments, or a ruse?
Two weeks later, Dawkins texted a payment plan for 11 players and their advisors or family members to unspecified recipients. He used abbreviations instead of names.
Dawkins reviewed the list in a follow-up phone call with another undercover FBI agent posing as an investor and going by the pseudonym Jill Bailey.
The first entry — “DTCTB” — referred to Taeshon Cherry’s father, according to a transcript of the intercepted call between Dawkins and Bailey. Cherry had committed to attend USC and was the Trojans’ top-rated recruit in a decade. He later changed his mind and signed with Arizona State.
“So, Taeshon Cherry … you know, Tony Bland recruited him,” Dawkins told Bailey. “[His father] basically needs $4,000 as soon as he can get it and then his monthly number will be two grand a month.”
Dawkins offered Bailey the bank account information for Cherry’s father.
Another entry — “UDE SC TB” — indicated a $5,000 payment to David Elliott, a family friend of USC player De’Anthony Melton sometimes described as his uncle. That was to be delivered on the first of every month, Dawkins said in the recorded call.
Elliott has repeatedly denied accepting any money in relation to Melton. Cherry’s mother previously denied any link between her son and the investigation.
In another intercepted call, Dawkins complained to NBA agent Andy Miller about requests by people close to Melton and fellow USC player Chimezie Metu.
“They want a lot of [expletive] mon — the problem with them L.A. dudes is they [expletive] — the numbers that they be wanting is [expletive] ridiculous,” Dawkins said, according to a transcript of the call. “And I told T. Bland this, that — yesterday I talked to him about Melton. … T. Bland is going to talk to [Elliott] to try to get to a happy medium because, like, the number he wants is retarded.”
Dawkins made plans to visit L.A. a few days later, a trip detailed in intercepted calls and text messages.
“Ima come out there with the white ppl just seeing if u will b around,” Dawkins texted Bland on Aug. 18, 2017, using “white people” in reference to the undercover FBI agents posing as investors in the company.
“Yup I’m there … bring that hahah,” Bland responded.
“Lmao facts,” Dawkins texted back.
The habit of the would-be investors throwing around wads of cash was a running joke.
Bailey handed Dawkins an envelope containing $4,000 after an Aug. 30, 2017 meeting in Los Angeles with a relative of Cherry, according to the criminal complaint. Dawkins allegedly left with the envelope and the relative, but there is no description of the money changing hands.
The next day, Dawkins told Bland in another intercepted phone call that Bailey wanted to see him. Dawkins said the discussion would include “the bread” for “[expletive] Cherry” and “De’Anthony’s people.”
“She basically just wants to — at the end of the day, bro, she’s spending a lot of [expletive] money,” Dawkins said. “And I think that she just wants to feel like that she can touch what’s going on, basically. … But it has to be a buffer between them and y’all, just because — from the standpoint of the NCAA.”
Bland interjected: “I don’t wanna touch nothing. I want it all to go through you.”
They tried to arrange lunch through a series of text messages. Bland was stuck meeting with a compliance staffer at USC.
“Lmao. All good chief,” Dawkins texted.
The group — Bland, Dawkins, Bailey and financial advisor Munish Sood — eventually met that afternoon at The Lab Gastropub next to Galen Center. The criminal complaint said Bland told them he would ensure players retained the sports management company if the group paid their families.
While Dawkins fronted the company, Sood — who accepted a plea bargain and cooperated with the government after being arrested — was a partner. Bailey and D’Angelo comprised the rest of Loyd Inc.’s board of directors.
Later that day, Bailey, Dawkins and Sood huddled with Elliott around a small table in the lobby restaurant at the Hyatt Regency near Los Angeles International Airport. There, Elliott allegedly took a $5,000 bribe from Bailey, according to the complaint.
Security camera footage — and testimony by Dawkins — told a much different story.
In video reviewed by The Times, Bailey put an envelope of money on the table. Dawkins stuffed it in his back pocket, left the hotel and put it between the front seats of his black Nissan sedan. Bank records show Dawkins deposited $11,400 in cash the same day at a Bank of America ATM in Inglewood, a short drive from the hotel.
“When Jill Bailey told you to give the money to [Elliott], did you?” Haney asked during Dawkins’ testimony earlier this month.
“No, he never received a penny,” Dawkins said.
“What did you do with it?” Haney asked.
“I deposited that money as well,” Dawkins said.
He offered this explanation for repeatedly pocketing the would-be bribes provided by the undercover agents: “I didn’t know how consistent the funding would be, so I wanted to get as much money as I possibly could to reinvest back in the company so we could actually run it properly.”
Every dollar he deposited, Dawkins added, came from the government.
No money nor middleman required
The trial exhibits pertaining to Bland and USC include a final twist: The FBI intercepted a call between the coach and Dawkins on Sept. 9, 2017, where Bland praised Elijah Stewart as “hands-down the best player on our team” and a future first-round pick in the NBA draft.
“Well,” Dawkins asked, “who’s running his deal?”
Bland: “Your boy that you talking to. You ain’t gotta go through nobody for him.”
The coach added: “You don’t have to do nothing, dog. That’s what I’m telling you. … And this is about to be my layup. And I might make it back over the next four players.”
Dawkins: “So you saying I can tell these white people that I can get [expletive] Elijah Stewart?”
Bland: “No question. No question.”
Dawkins said he didn’t want to pay Elliott $5,000 a month — and noted he hadn’t given Melton’s friend any money. The chance to deal with a player who didn’t have a handler seemed to energize Dawkins.
“You ain’t got to give him no money,” Bland said of Stewart. “He already — he saved every penny he has since he’s been in school. And he don’t have no … handler asking for [expletive]. Like, I’m his handler.”
Stewart wasn’t drafted last year and spent the season in the NBA G League.
Bland told Dawkins “we got three mouths to feed,” mentioning Melton and two other USC players whose names hadn’t previously been linked to the investigation.
In another intercepted call described by prosecutors, Bland told Dawkins that he spent $2,200 of his own money in connection with visits by two unnamed recruits and wanted to be reimbursed.
Two weeks later, Dawkins hadn’t forgotten about Stewart.
“I can come out to la anytime n oct to get with Stewart?” Dawkins texted Bland.
The coach never responded.
FBI agents arrested both men a few hours later.
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