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Two days in August are at heart of federal bribery case against USC basketball assistant Tony Bland

Tony Bland
USC assistant coach Tony Bland stands on the court during the second half of a game against UCLA on Feb. 18, 2017.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Tony Bland had a problem.

The USC men’s basketball associate head coach wanted to meet with would-be sports agent Christian Dawkins on Aug. 31. But during a phone call that morning, Bland told Dawkins about a conflicting appointment with a member of the school’s compliance staff.

An FBI wiretap recorded each word.

After Bland confirmed Dawkins was alone, according to the federal criminal complaint filed in September, the men discussed funneling “bread” to associates of two USC players. In exchange, the players, when they became professionals, would use the services of Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood.

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The coach, who bragged about his influence over USC players in previous conversations, had one concern. He didn’t want to touch the money.

“I want it all to go through you,” Bland told Dawkins.

Two days in late August are at the heart of the case against Bland, one of 10 men charged in the wide-ranging college basketball bribery and corruption investigation.

A federal grand jury in New York indicted Bland and seven other defendants Tuesday. The coach hasn’t entered a plea, but his attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, said the alleged conduct isn’t criminal and his client is being scapegoated.

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The case has thrown a shadow over USC’s season, which opens Friday — the school is ranked among the top 10 teams in the Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since 1974 — and appears connected to its vaunted class of 2018 recruits.

The day before the phone call, Dawkins and Sood gathered at a Los Angeles restaurant with the relative of a USC player or recruit, identified in the complaint as Player-8. An undercover FBI agent joined them. He posed as a financial backer of a businessman — actually a cooperating witness in the case — who was friendly with Dawkins. The undercover agent recorded the meeting.

The complaint provides two clues to the player’s identify: First, he had recently committed to play for the school. Second, the player was 17 years old at the time of the meeting.

The player is described in the indictment as a “rising freshman who would be joining the University of Southern California’s men’s basketball team,” but provides no further details. The 15 players currently on USC’s roster, including three true freshman, were all 18 or older in August.

Attorneys for Bland and Dawkins didn’t respond to questions about the meeting.

At the restaurant, the New Jersey-based Sood described his wealth management services, then said: “The sooner we work with [the players], sooner we understand their needs, we’re better prepared and they’re better prepared and their families are better prepared.”

Dawkins added that all involved would discuss the arrangement in more detail “when you feel the kid is mature enough to be able to have a business conversation, a grown-man conversation, to understand who he is and what’s about to happen.”

The relative expected Player-8’s mother to manage his day-to-day affairs. The youngster would meet with Dawkins, Sood and the others when he was “mature enough to understand” the arrangement.

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Dawkins, who is 24, according to prosecutors, wasn’t much older than the player. The Michigan native listed his location as “worldwide” on his Twitter biography. He started a blog as a teenager with scouting reports on high school players. College coaches could buy a yearlong subscription for $600. He regularly posted motivational sayings on social media: “Never judge a man how he makes a living.”

A former L.A. area youth coach who encountered Dawkins at grassroots basketball events described him as a “hustler,” part of college basketball’s underground economy of quasi-agents, runners and hangers-on who latch onto players with professional potential. A former high-major college coach who retains deep ties to the sport said many coaches didn’t take Dawkins seriously. But some did.

When the meeting wrapped up, Dawkins asked the undercover agent for the envelope to give to the relative. The complaint said it contained $4,000. When they left the restaurant, prosecutors allege Dawkins received the money. He walked off with the relative.

The next day, Bland met Sood and Dawkins at a restaurant on USC’s campus. The undercover agent again recorded the conversation. Bland told the men if they funded the families of USC players and recruits, he would make certain the players retained Dawkins and Sood, according to the complaint.

“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.

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.”

Bland’s biography, since scrubbed from USC’s website, described him as an “elite recruiter.” He favored the #RecruitOrDie hashtag. Among social media pictures of expensive dinners, trips abroad and a Rolex watch, Bland included a snapshot of a fortune cookie slip. It read: “You have a charming way with words.” Those acquainted with him agreed. He developed a reputation as an affable, well-connected person who usually picked up the bill after a night out.

Though Bland later told federal authorities he made $300,000 a year at USC against monthly expenses of $7,055, prosecutors alleged he accepted a $13,000 bribe in July to steer players to Dawkins and Sood. As the meeting on USC’s campus wrapped up, money remained a key topic.

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“What you’re saying is exactly what I’m looking for,” Bland said, according to the complaint. “And because it comes from Christian, who I trust, you know because obviously we have a couple opportunities where we got us a gold mine over here.”

The coach noted that he had the opportunity to be paid by advisors and agents in the past — and to pay families of players — but “it’s not been this clean from a guy that I trust.”

Documents filed in the case don’t detail how Bland and Dawkins became acquainted or built their relationship.

Immediately after the gathering on USC’s campus, Dawkins and Sood met at an L.A. restaurant with a person the indictment described as a “family member and/or close family friend” of a current USC player. The complaint refers to Player-9 as a “rising sophomore.”

Dawkins told the undercover agent, who was recording the proceedings once more, that Bland wanted to give the Player-9’s associate $5,000. The agent provided the money.

The men discussed “the plan” for [Player-9] to enter the NBA draft in 2018. Player-9’s associate mentioned that he talked with Bland an hour earlier. While Dawkins gave the undercover agent a ride to the airport, Sood remained behind to discuss his services with the associate.

Bland, who faces four charges, is on administrative leave. USC retained former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh’s firm to investigate the basketball program, though attorneys for Bland and Dawkins said they haven’t been contacted.

“Simply put, Christian Dawkins is not guilty of what is charged,” his attorney, Steven A. Haney, said in a statement to The Times. “For decades, college basketball has been nothing short of a sham of amateurism and fraudulent one year holding pen for the NBA. This environment has been endorsed by the Universities, who have turned a blind eye and been the billion dollar benefactors of alleged Federal crimes. The sins of the NCAA are not going to be visited upon my client.”

In public and private, those connected to the program remain taciturn. Some downplay the long-term impact of the charges on USC. Others are apprehensive as the investigation that started in 2015 continues. Uncertainty is the constant. However, Bland expressed no uncertainty about his role during the snippets of conversation recorded by the undercover agent and included in the complaint.

“Some guys, like [Player-8], I can say, this is what you’re doing,” Bland said during the recorded Aug. 31 meeting, “but other guys, the sooner you get in, you gotta, kind of … push them that way, and before it’s too late, it’s what they’re doing.”

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno


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