The bribery and corruption case enveloping college basketball could roil Arizona and USC, the teams at the top of the Pac-12 Conference standings.
Expense reports obtained by federal authorities from ASM Sports, a high-powered agency that represents professional basketball players, detail payments to people close to USC stars Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright in February and March of 2016 when they were freshmen.
The records indicate Boatwright’s father, Bennie Sr., received about $2,000 and Metu or his advisor, Johnnie Parker, got at least $2,000. Yahoo Sports first reported the information Friday, having reviewed hundreds of pages of documents under a court protective order that connect more than 25 players and 20 schools to alleged payments that could violate NCAA rules.
Later in the day, ESPN, citing unnamed sources, reported that FBI wiretaps intercepted telephone conversations between Arizona coach Sean Miller and would-be agent Christian Dawkins in which Miller discussed a $100,000 payment to ensure Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats.
Ayton, a 7-foot-1 freshman from the Bahamas, paces Pac-12-leading Arizona with 53 blocked shots and averages of 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds. He is expected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft.
Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson and USC’s Tony Bland were among four major-college assistant coaches fired after they were arrested and charged in the bribery and corruption case. Richardson and Miller had a longtime association, having worked together for 10 seasons at Arizona and, previously, Xavier.
The Times independently confirmed the information in the Yahoo report related to USC. No other players from the school are believed to be mentioned in the ASM Sports documents.
The revelation throws the status of Metu, projected as a first-round pick in the draft, into doubt at a junction critical to USC’s hopes of qualifying for the NCAA tournament. The Trojans are 20-9 overall and 1½ games behind Arizona with two games left before the Pac-12 Conference tournament. Boatwright suffered a knee injury this month and is out for the season.
The payments, if substantiated, also could lead to NCAA trouble for USC, including potentially having to forfeit games Metu and Boatwright played in after they, or people close to them, accepted money.
“We just became aware of this new information through media sources, and we take these allegations very seriously,” the school said in a statement. “USC Athletics places the highest priority on athletic compliance, and as we have demonstrated, we do not tolerate violations of our policies or NCAA rules. We will fully cooperate with the NCAA and federal authorities as well as conduct our own investigation into these allegations.”
Federal authorities accused Bland of accepting a $13,000 bribe from Dawkins, who worked for ASM Sports until early last year before striking out on his own. Dawkins allegedly offered the money to Bland in exchange for directing USC players to use him and financial advisor Munish Sood when they turned professional. The school fired Bland last month.
USC held sophomore De’Anthony Melton out for the season after the federal criminal complaint alleged a family friend, David Elliott, received $5,000 from Dawkins. Elliott and his attorney deny any money changed hands. Melton left school this month.
Metu was a vocal defender of Melton while the guard was in limbo. Melton wore a “#FREEDMELT” t-shirt to postgame news conferences and assailed the school on Twitter for not allowing Melton to play.
“It’s a shame that Chimezie Metu has to be pulled into a situation like this that I am totally against,” his advisor, Parker, said in a statement to The Times. “I have never introduced a student-athlete to an agent and have never taken money or gifts to allow access to a player who I have coached or trained.
“Chimezie Metu is a special athlete who truly worked his way to the top. I was fortunate enough to help mentor him and develop his skills while he was in high school. But Chimezie is his own man. He makes his own decisions about his future. He is at a great school, is getting good grades and is blessed to be with Coach [Andy] Enfield and his staff. He is a lottery pick in my opinion. He did nothing wrong with regard to Christian Dawkins and he should be cleared to play on Saturday.”
Another player in the complaint linked to USC, according to a person familiar with the situation, was Taeshon Cherry, a top recruit from San Diego. Cherry withdrew his commitment to USC in December after the school seemed to back away from him. He recently pledged to attend Arizona State.
Metu, Boatwright or the apparent payments by ASM Sports aren’t mentioned in the complaints or grand jury indictments in the three criminal cases pending on U.S. District Court in New York connected to the bribery and corruption probe.
The ASM Sports documents are part of a massive cache of discovery federal authorities have turned over to defense counsel in stages since late November. The material includes search warrant applications, transcripts of intercepted phone calls, thousands of hours of recordings, text messages, material subpoenaed from schools linked to the case, plus Adidas and the NCAA, and much more.
Defense attorneys signed a wide-ranging protective order last year that bars them from even revealing the “voice, likeness or image” of two undercover FBI agents involved in the investigation.
“The leak is disgraceful,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, Bland’s New York-based attorney. “An effort was clearly made to embarrass some defendants and cast aspersions on some current student athletes …
“As I said in court during our last appearance when the government blamed defense lawyers for prior leaks, instead the FBI should be investigated for these leaks. Who else stands to gain from this disgraceful violation of the protective order issued by the judges in these cases?”
Within hours of the Yahoo story being published Friday, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan scheduled a hearing for Wednesday to address the matter, according to court records.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement Friday that the allegations, “if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America.”
The documents obtained by Yahoo indicate Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma received at least $9,500 from ASM Sports while attending Utah, one of several players or family members to receive more than $1,000 from the company before they turned professional. They include former Washington standout Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers last year, receiving $10,000 and Dennis Smith Jr., now with the Dallas Mavericks, getting more than $70,000 in loans while playing for North Carolina State.
“I am not going to say anything really,” Kuzma said when asked if the allegation was true. “Just gathering information about it.”
Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball essentially shrugged when asked about the news of the day.
“Everybody knows everybody’s getting paid,” Ball said of college athletes — though he said he had not been paid while at UCLA. “That’s just how it is. Everybody’s getting paid anyway, you might as well make it legal.”
Kuzma is Ball’s closest friend on the team.
“He’s in the NBA now,” Ball said. “He really don’t care. Whatever happened is in the past. Now he’s just living life.”
Along with USC’s Bland and Arizona’s Richardson, Auburn’s Chuck Person and Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans were fired after being charged and indicted in the case. Jim Gatto and Merl Code, Adidas employees, Rashan Michel, a clothing manufacturer also have been indicted.
Federal authorities dropped charges against Florida AAU basketball coach Jonathan Brad Augustine earlier this month, and have repeatedly delayed indicting Sood.
It’s not clear if any of the payments described in the ASM Sports documents could form the basis for future criminal charges.
“A lot of this we already knew was happening and has been for years,” said one former high-major college coach with California ties. “Now what is the NCAA going to do?”
Times staff writers Tania Ganguli and Mike Hiserman, and correspondent Chuck Schilken contributed to this report.
Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter @nathanfenno
2 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball.
1:10 p.m.: This article was updated after Kyle Kuzma declined to speak to reporters.
10:10 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from USC.
9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with more details from the Yahoo report, plus comments from Debbie Yow, John Calipari and Dan Radakovich.
9:30 a.m.: This article was updated with background information on USC players.
This article was originally published at 8:25 a.m.