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Former USC assistant coach Tony Bland agrees to plea deal in college basketball bribery case

Tony Bland
Tony Bland
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Former USC associate head coach Tony Bland agreed to a plea bargain Thursday in the wide-ranging federal investigation into college basketball bribery and corruption.

Bland’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, confirmed the deal to the Los Angeles Times.

A person familiar with the arrangement between Bland and prosecutors in U.S. District Court in New York told The Times the former coach will plead guilty to one felony count of federal funds bribery and get a Level 10 sentencing guideline. That level calls for six to 12 months in prison, but Bland is expected to receive probation since he doesn’t have a previous criminal record. The deal isn’t believed to include a requirement for Bland to cooperate with prosecutors.

Further details of the plea bargain weren’t immediately available.

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FBI agents arrested Bland, the top assistant for USC coach Andy Enfield, almost 15 months ago. The school, which declined to comment on Thursday’s developments, placed Bland on administrative leave after the arrest and fired him in January.

Prosecutors alleged Bland, 38, accepted a $13,000 bribe in exchange for steering USC players to use a sports management company and financial advisor when they turned professional. The prosecutors also accused Bland of directing a combined $9,000 in payments to associates of USC player De’Anthony Melton and recruit Taeshon Cherry.

Bland was indicted on four felony counts: conspiracy to commit bribery, honest services wire fraud, mail fraud conspiracy and violating the Travel Act.

Christian Dawkins, the would-be chief executive of the sports management company; former Arizona assistant Book Richardson; former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans and Adidas employee Merl Code were also charged in the matter. The four men have pleaded not guilty. Their trial is scheduled for April, though some of them are discussing plea bargains with prosecutors.

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

At least two other men have accepted plea bargains in connection with the investigation: financial advisor Munish Sood, who planned to partner with Dawkins in the sports management company, and former Adidas employee T.J. Gassnola.

Bland is the first coach known to have taken a deal in the investigation that rocked college basketball.

The former All-City guard at Westchester High played for Syracuse and San Diego State, then started as an assistant with the Aztecs in 2011. USC hired Bland two years later, as he built a national reputation as a top-flight recruiter with a magnetic personality and knack for making immediate connections with people.

Though prosecutors accused Bland of accepting a $13,000 bribe in a Las Vegas hotel room in July 2017, questions still surround what happened to the money. An undercover FBI agent posing as an investor in the sports management company gave the envelope containing the cash to Dawkins. The criminal complaint said Dawkins, Bland and the undercover agent discussed future payments to Bland being made in New York, but it doesn’t say exactly how the coach received the bribe.

Bank records introduced as evidence in court and detailed by The Times last month show Dawkins deposited $8,900 in cash the same day at a Bank of America ATM in Las Vegas. People familiar with the case who spoke on the condition they not be identified believe he gave Bland — who made $300,000 a year at USC — some cash to use while in the city and kept the rest.

Court documents showed the FBI had been wiretapping Bland’s phone since at least June 2017.

Prosecutors also alleged Bland facilitated payments to the associates of Melton and Cherry as part of a “scheme to defraud” the university. The players weren’t accused of any wrongdoing.

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“My part of the job can be to get the parents, and to introduce them to Christian [Dawkins] and say, ‘Hey, I trust him and vouch for him,’ ” Bland said in an August 2017 meeting at a restaurant on USC’s campus with Dawkins, Sood and an undercover agent who recorded the gathering.

The coach added: “I can definitely get the players. ... And I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys.”

On Aug. 30, 2017, according to the criminal complaint, an undercover agent handed Dawkins an envelope containing $4,000 after meeting with an associate of Cherry in L.A. Dawkins and the associate walked off together in a parking lot, but the complaint doesn’t detail the money changing hands.

The next day, the complaint said, Dawkins, Sood and David Elliott, an associate of Melton, met the undercover agent at the Hyatt Regency near L.A. International Airport. The complaint said the undercover agent gave Dawkins an envelope containing $5,000 for Elliott, but doesn’t describe how or when that took place.

Security camera video reviewed by The Times shows Dawkins stuffing the envelope in his back pocket and eventually placing it between the front seats of his sedan.

Elliott has repeatedly denied receiving any money.

The same day as the meeting, the bank records show Dawkins deposited $11,400 in cash at a Bank of America ATM in Inglewood, a short drive from the hotel. The people familiar with the investigation believe the deposit included the $5,000 from the Elliott meeting and the $4,000 from the previous day’s meeting.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

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Twitter: @nathanfenno


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