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Former USC assistant coach Tony Bland pleads guilty in college basketball bribery case

Tony Bland
Former USC assistant basketball coach Tony Bland arrives at federal court in New York on Jan. 2, 2019.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Tony Bland stared at the sheet of paper, shook his head in seeming disgust and sighed.

Fifteen months after FBI agents arrested the former USC associate head coach in the college basketball bribery and corruption investigation, he reviewed the three double-spaced paragraphs a final time Wednesday.

Then, in front of a dozen spectators in a sixth-floor room at the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in Manhattan, Bland pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.

“From on or about 2016, up to and including September 2017, within the Southern District of New York and elsewhere, I knowingly and willfully conspired with others to commit federal funds bribery, an offense against the United States of America,” Bland read from the sheet of paper during the half-hour hearing.

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“Specifically, I agreed to receive payments in exchange for directing basketball players from the University of Southern California ... to retain the services of certain financial advisors and business managers.”

He concluded with the line: “I knew that my conduct was wrong.”

Inside the courtroom — decorated with six gold chandeliers and blue carpet emblazoned with gold stars and wreaths — Bland’s once-ascendant coaching career felt far away. He used to serve as USC coach Andy Enfield’s top assistant, built a reputation as one of the nation’s top recruiters and appeared poised to take over his own program in the next year or two.

Then came the sudden arrest, the headlines, the indictment on four felony charges, the termination by USC.

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“This drove a stake through the heart of his career,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, Bland’s attorney. .

Moving forward with his life and whatever remains of his career meant revisiting the past.

Bland sat at a long table between Lichtman, who also represents accused drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and attorney Jeffrey Einhorn. The former coach repeatedly tapped his feet while answering a series of questions from U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos about the six-page plea agreement signed late last month.

The sentencing guideline in the deal calls for six to 12 months in prison. Bland, however, is expected to receive probation at the sentencing April 2 since he doesn’t have a criminal record. The deal doesn’t include any requirement for him to cooperate with prosecutors.

USC v UCLA
USC coach Andy Enfield, left, and associate head coach Tony Bland react to a play during a Pac-12 tournament game against UCLA on March 9, 2017, in Las Vegas.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

At the heart of the agreement is Bland’s admission that he accepted a $4,100 bribe during a meeting in Las Vegas on July 29, 2017, in exchange for directing USC players to use a sports management company led by Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood.

“As he admitted in court today, Tony Bland ... abused his position as a mentor and coach to student-athletes and aspiring professionals,” U.S. Atty. Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “He treated his players not as young men to counsel and guide, but as opportunities to enrich himself.”

Representatives of the NCAA and USC declined to comment.

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Prosecutors originally accused Bland of receiving a $13,000 bribe during the meeting. An undercover FBI agent posing as an investor in the sports management company provided the cash in an envelope. The government also alleged the former coach directed a combined $9,000 in payments to associates of USC player De’Anthony Melton and recruit Taeshon Cherry. Neither player has been accused of any wrongdoing.

During one gathering recorded by an undercover FBI agent, Bland told Dawkins and Sood: “I definitely can get the players. … And I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys.”

But the Los Angeles Times reported in November that bank records show Dawkins, the would-be chief executive of the sports management company who attended the meeting, deposited $8,900 in cash at a Bank of America ATM in Las Vegas the same day Bland received the bribe. People familiar with the case who spoke on the condition they not be identified said Dawkins kept the bulk of the money and gave some cash to Bland to use while in the Las Vegas.

The $4,100 Bland admitted taking is believed to be the difference between the $13,000 he was alleged to have accepted and the $8,900 that Dawkins deposited.

“This is a case that is a product of a very broken, antiquated system,” Lichtman said. “He was looking to help the players, but the problem is the way he went about it was wrong.”

The attorney added: “If the NCAA is unwilling to police itself, I have respect for the Southern District of New York prosecutors for being willing to do it. This is a broken system.”

Lichtman lauded Bland as someone who has become a friend during the last 15 months and the “most decent man” he has ever represented.

“It’s a tragic, tragic day,” Lichtman said.

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Bland, 38, declined to comment.

The former coach had been scheduled for trial in April along with Dawkins, former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, former Arizona assistant Book Richardson and Adidas employee Merl Code. The four men have pleaded not guilty, though some of them are discussing plea bargains with prosecutors.

“It means we will have to fight a little harder and be a little better,” Steve Haney, Dawkins’ attorney, said about the impact of Bland’s plea. “We want the truth to come out and it will.”

In October, a federal jury convicted Dawkins, Code and Adidas employee Jim Gatto of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a separate case that revolved around payments to associates of players at Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina State.

Sood and T.J. Gassnola, another former Adidas employee, accepted plea bargains last year and are cooperating with prosecutors.

Former Auburn assistant Chuck Person and clothier Rashan Michel are scheduled for trial in February in a third case related to the investigation.

If Bland’s case had gone to trial, assistant U.S. Atty. Eli Mark told the court, prosecutors would have used evidence that included audio and video recordings of the Las Vegas meeting, intercepted phone calls and testimony from Sood and USC representatives.

After the hearing ended, two assistant U.S. attorneys exchanged handshakes and smiled. Nearby, Bland bit his lower lip. He hugged one of two friends sitting in the first row of the courtroom. He shook his head, tugged a jacket over his suit coat and exhaled.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno


UPDATES:

2:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with more details.

This article was originally published at 10:25 a.m.


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