Feds likely to apply pressure on big-name coaches, programs

ByMike Fish ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Some of college sports' most high-profile athletic administrators and basketball coaches, and even players and recruits, are likely to soon face pressure unlike anything they have ever encountered as a federal corruption and fraud case that was announced Tuesday expands and continues, lawyers and former federal investigators say.

A harsh reality of such cases, said Guy Lewis, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, is the desire of federal investigators to determine how high up the alleged corruption and fraud go, meaning whether the malfeasance reaches into the upper echelons of athletic departments and university administrations. Investigators will determine that by applying pressure to those already charged by demanding more details, by hauling in witnesses for questioning, by issuing subpoenas and by seeking search warrants, among other tools.

"It is a fundamentally different ballgame," Lewis said. "The federal government's ability to investigate and turn over leads and pursue evidence in an almost unlimited way is real and dramatic."

It would be foolish, Lewis and others said, to assume that what has been publicized so far represents an end rather than a beginning.

On Tuesday, 10 men -- including a top Adidas executive and four assistant basketball coaches -- were charged with using hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to influence star athletes' choice of schools, shoe sponsors, agents and even tailors. Federal prosecutors said at least three top high school recruits were promised payments of as much as $150,000, using money supplied by Adidas, to attend two universities sponsored by the athletic shoe company.

Starting in 2015, the FBI conducted an elaborate undercover operation, using wiretaps, surveillance video, undercover agents and cooperating witnesses. The FBI was able to document coaches accepting bribes to steer their players to certain financial advisers and/or business managers. In other cases, high-ranking Adidas employees worked with others to pay prospective student-athletes' families to ensure the players signed with Adidas-sponsored schools and then signed with Adidas once they turned pro, federal complaints allege.

FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney had a warning Tuesday for other coaches who might be involved in similar schemes. "We have your playbook," he said. "Our investigation is ongoing. We are conducting additional interviews as we speak." The FBI and U.S. Attorney's office said they have established a hotline for information related to the investigation.

Unlike the NCAA's enforcement staff and its limited investigative resources, the more powerful federal agents have subpoena power to help gather evidence and can compel witnesses to cooperate. Witnesses in most cases are not questioned under oath, but they risk prosecution if they do not tell the truth. One high-profile example of such a prosecution is former Olympic track star Marion Jones, a five-time medalist who served six months in prison after making false statements to federal agents who inquired about her use of performance-enhancing drugs and her connection to a check-fraud case. Businesswoman Martha Stewart also served time for lying to federal agents about a stock sale.

"This is a dramatic difference in terms of the investigators' ability to demand and require evidence, to employ a federal grand jury, to require witnesses to appear," said Lewis, who now represents defendants facing federal charges.

For decades, the funneling of money and perks to elite players has been the college game's dirty little secret, but rarely have coaches and programs been caught. The NCAA enforcement staff, at times, has been woefully understaffed, often with young, inexperienced hires, and charged with investigating the very schools that pay their salaries.

For some, such as former Nike and Adidas executive Sonny Vaccaro, the NCAA enforcement staff has "always been a myth" in that it zeroes in on easy targets and never digs beneath the surface. The NCAA investigative and sanctioning process can drag on for years. The coaches overseeing the programs -- particular in recent years with the likes of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Roy Williams at North Carolina and Rick Pitino at Louisville -- have routinely kept their jobs and rank among the coaching Hall of Famers.

In the wake of the Tuesday's announcement, however, Pitino was effectively fired when he was placed on unpaid university leave. Louisville placed athletic director Tom Jurich on paid administrative leave.

"Obviously, the government has substantially more resources to get at bank records and things like that," a former NCAA enforcement representative said. "I would expect they will be able to accomplish a lot more than what you would under a typical NCAA investigation, in terms of really getting to the root of things.

"The NCAA doesn't have subpoena power, but if you have a coach involved, they can make a request of the coach to produce his bank records. The coach basically has to do it, or he is going to be charged with failure to cooperate. That is the coach. They can't get to some of these other entities like Adidas and some of those other people. The government is going to be able to build a much stronger case. And it looks like they probably already have."

Lewis, a Miami-based attorney, said he would expect the government to gain the cooperation of potential witnesses -- including players and their parents, AAU and college coaches, financial advisers and shoe company officials -- while expanding the case. His experience is that publicity from a case often results in witnesses, documents and evidence coming forward. Likewise, a university's leadership has a foremost responsibility to protect the institution's integrity rather than stand by an assistant or head coach in such a circumstance.

"And if that means a lower and even the upper echelon of leadership has to be sacrificed for the greater good, you have seen it. It happens over and over," Lewis said.

Joon H. Kim, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, made it clear Tuesday that his office is pursuing additional indictments in the pay-for-play scandal.

"It's better for you to call us than for us to be calling you when we're ready to charge you," Kim warned.

"There are no real limits or bounds in terms of the next step," said Lewis, who has experience as a defense attorney in sports-related cases as well as having successfully prosecuted a federal case against the late Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega. "... When I knock on your door and produce a badge, and it says 'Department of Justice' or 'Internal Revenue' or 'DEA' or 'FBI,' and I give you a subpoena that calls for any and all documents related to a transaction, it is a dramatic event. I can compel your testimony."

A witness can try to plead the Fifth Amendment and not speak to authorities in an attempt to avoid self-incrimination, but even that might not end the pressure, Lewis said, because a prosecutor might grant the witness immunity from prosecution so long as he or she talks. That includes recruits, players and their parents, potentially.

"At a minimum, they become material witnesses," Lewis said.

"I want the top of the pyramid," Lewis said of such investigations. "I don't want the guy that is at the bottom of the pyramid. I want the guy who is at the top, who is calling the shots. I want to follow the money and the decision-making authority. And I can compel your testimony. You are now going to become a witness for the government. If you say no? OK, fine. Let's start with 30 days in jail for contempt and see if that jogs your memory."

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