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3 convicted of fraud in college basketball corruption trial

From left, former Adidas executive James Gatto, former sports agent Christian Dawkins and former amateur basketball league director Merl Code arrive at federal court in New York in these photos from October 2018.    (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK — An Adidas executive and two other insiders from the high-stakes world of college basketball recruiting were convicted Wednesday in a corruption case that prosecutors said exposed the underbelly of the sport.

A federal jury in Manhattan found former Adidas executive James Gatto, business manager Christian Dawkins and amateur league director Merl Code guilty of fraud charges.

The trial centered on whether the men’s admitted effort to channel secret payments to the families of top recruits, luring them to major basketball programs sponsored by Adidas, was criminal. At stake was a fortune in revenue for the basketball programs and potential endorsement deals for the players if they went pro.

Evidence included text messages between the defendants and top-tier coaches like Bill Self of Kansas and Rick Pitino of Louisville and testimony from the father of prized recruit Brian Bowen Jr. describing how a Louisville assistant handed him an envelope stuffed with cash.

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Prosecutors claimed the schools were in the dark about the payment schemes, including $100,000 promised to Bowen’s family, that are outlawed by the NCAA. They accused the defendants of defrauding universities by tricking them into passing out scholarships to players who should have been ineligible.

Gatto, Dawkins and Code left court Wednesday without speaking to reporters, though one defense lawyer indicated there would be an appeal. Sentencing was set for March 5.

Two more college basketball corruption trials are set for next year. The defendants include Chuck Person, a former associate head coach at Auburn who played for five NBA teams over 13 seasons, and also former assistant coaches Tony Bland of USC, Emanuel Richardson of Arizona and Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State.

In closing arguments at the first trial, prosecutor Noah Solowiejczyk recounted testimony from cooperators and wiretap evidence about how the defendants took steps to create false invoices to Adidas, route funds through various bank accounts and convert it to cash for the families.

The behavior “tells you an awful lot about the defendants,” the prosecutor said. “It tells you that what they were doing was wrong.”

The defendants didn’t deny they sought to make the payments. But they argued that was how the recruitment game was played by Adidas, Nike and other sportswear companies - and that talent-hungry coaching staffs knew it.

A lawyer for defendant Dawkins, who was instrumental in steering Bowen to Louisville, claimed his client thought he was helping the program succeed to the benefit of everyone involved.

“What proof did the government present that Louisville suffered any harm?” attorney Steven Haney said in closing arguments. In Dawkins’ mind, “he thought what he was doing was OK.”

Defense attorneys sought to convince the jury the text messages and phone records showing Self and Pitino were in touch with the recruitment middlemen aligned with Adidas proved they had to be aware of the payments. They said further proof the schools weren’t blind to the schemes was testimony by Brian Bowen Sr. claiming he received $1,300 from Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson and other testimony by a cooperator, former Adidas consultant, Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola, that he delivered $40,000 to North Carolina State assistant coach Orlando Early intended for the family of highly-touted point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

In the texts last year, Gassnola told Self he was in the touch with the guardian of player Silvio De Sousa, who prosecutors say was among recruits whose families were offered secret payments. And another exhibit showed how Dawkins was communicating with Pitino as Bowen was nearing a decision about where he would play.

Self remains at Kansas. But the school announced this week that De Sousa will be benched during games by the top-ranked Jayhawks pending a review of his eligibility.

In a statement on Wednesday, Kansas school officials said they were working with federal authorities and the NCAA to ensure “a culture of compliance.” They also said they are continuing to evaluate their options about whether to extend a contract with Adidas.

At Louisville, the scandal resulted in the firing of Pitino — who had been hurt by previous controversies — and forced Bowen to leave the university and college basketball entirely without ever playing a game. Pitino has denied any wrongdoing. Bowen is pursuing a professional career in Australia.

The trial’s most emotional moment came when a prosecutor first began questioning the elder Bowen about his son, who goes by the nickname “Tugs.”

“Is Tugs in college?” asked prosecutor Edward Diskant.

“No, he’s not,” Bowen responded.

When the prosecutor asked why not, Bowen dropped his head into his hands and wept.

Comments

Barry Weiss

So this confirms that KU was a victim!

4 years, 1 month ago

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Mike Hart

Oh yeah... a real victim.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Steve Corder

What do you call a player who loses his eligibility to attend and/or play at a university?

4 years, 1 month ago

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Joe Ross

What did Coach mean when he asked "We good?"

4 years, 1 month ago

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Craig Carson

from my understanding, SeSousa guardian wanted to connect with an Adidas rep about some gear for the Angolan national team.."we good" could have just been Self inquiring how the talk went and if Gassnola could accomodate the request for the gear?..in truth, we may never know..the text is extremely vague

4 years, 1 month ago

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Curtis Blankenship

So the school gets recruits, recruits get money, and Adidas gets the school. Sounds like win, win, win all the way around. In 1989 KU was suspended from post season play giving Askew money to visit his ailing grandmother. Is this not as bad, the same, or worse? Then what should the punishment be?

4 years, 1 month ago

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Jack Hoff

Best case scenario so far for KU!

4 years, 1 month ago

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Phil Leister

For Pitino, this specific scandal was the straw that broke the camel's back. There were a number of other things in the previous years that slowly contributed to his ouster.

To say that Self is still at KU in spite of this, while Pitino was fired, is misleading.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Joe Black

Extremely misleading! But it was stated that way with the intent of misleading the average reader.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Len Shaffer

Joe, I wasn't aware that you had a special insight into the minds of the people who contributed to this article; you really should market that talent for mind reading as it could prove quite valuable.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Mike Hart

You know, Len... it's about setting aside your personal bias and love of University and team... and looking at it through a common sense lens. I find it quite ironic that Coach Self and Townsend are texting Adidas about recruits... and in Townsend's case at least: The recruit's demands (or recruits guardians in case of DeSousa) are being discussed. Townsend's text messages with Gassnola... about Fenny.. were not allowed into evidence by the judge. Hence, the jury never heard about those text messages. In the best case scenario for my fellow Kansas fans who choose to look at everything with rose-colored glasses: Adidas did things to purposely "hide" payments from KU and KU coaching staff. These actions will lead to NCAA investigations... and will jeopardize DeSousa's amateur status. These payments are the REASON DeSousa is even at Kansas. Why on EARTH.. would we want to affiliate and re-align a contract renewal with Adidas? Someone explain that to me. They were underhanded... and if you are a homer... then at a minimum... they deceived KU and stained our reputation.. .damaging our image in the eyes of future recruits and the general public. You are doing a disservice if you don't question the credibility of Self and Townsend to say that they are unaware of any of these activities going forward. I mean the mere premise of an Adidas contract renewal being dependent on the ability to Adidas to steer DeSousa and Preston to KU... ridiculous. 6 weeks KU investigated the financial picture behind Preston's car...and you are going to tell me in all that time that no one talked to Adidas.. that KU didn't know? Baloney...

4 years, 1 month ago

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Joseph Leon

Does this mean that a jury found - beyond a reasonable doubt - that neither Bill Self nor Kurt Townsend knew about the scheme? If one of them knew, then KU knew, and there was no fraud. Or is that not the case? Does anyone know?

4 years, 1 month ago

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Jack Hoff

Due to this being a criminal case the burden of proving the defendant's guilt is on the prosecution, and they must establish that fact beyond a reasonable doubt. So the FBI has to lead the jury to believe that the 3 gentlemen above defrauded Universities beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore it is likely the jury felt that the defense failed to prove that Self or Kurtis knew about the payments. If they believed the coaches knew, then the FBI would have no case so evidence definitely paints KU in a good light.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Dane Pratt

I don't believe so Joseph. Even though this trial was never about Bill Self and KU it has unfortunately put us in a very bad light. Now it is up to the NCAA to determine our fate only they do not need the same burden of proof required in a court trial. The NCAA does not have a jury.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Mike Hart

What IS known.. is that many of the text exchanges between Townsend and Gassnola... regarding Fenny (DeSousa guardian)... were not admissible, so if evidence of communications between coaching staff and Adidas are not allowed into evidence, then it is pretty hard to prove that the KU coaching staff knew anything.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Dan Blomgren

I think we all know Ku wasn't the victim here, but KU came out pretty clean. I need to reread the article, but I don't remember it speaking of repercussions to De Sousa. I just hope this is all behind us!! RCJH!

4 years, 1 month ago

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Robert Brock

Chances are that De Sousa will have to pay back the $2500 he received for the online courses. He may face a penalty - such as sitting for several games. Then what? I am guessing that he will be free and clear at that point.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Dan Blomgren

The article leaves a lot of unanswered questions like the ones you pose, but most importantly it appears the case is over with no further penalties to KU.
The article doesn't mention De Sousa penalties at all so I'm not sure how to take that.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Mike Maddox

The trial wasn't about KU or NCAA rules infractions. The NCAA was told to stay out of it until trials are over. There are more trials to come in Feb and April with different defendants, and not just Adidas reps. So other schools and players will get dragged into this.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Danny Hernandez

KU was a victim and the New York Attorney General's office would have gone after Kansas if there was even an ounce of proof. There wasn't so can we get back to basketball.

Free Sousa

4 years, 1 month ago

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Len Shaffer

Why on earth would the New York Attorney General's office have gone after KU??? The law that was broken was that the defendants supposedly committed fraud AGAINST KU and other schools, so there wouldn't have been anything for the NY AG's office to file AGAINST KU. The danger for KU lies with the NCAA, not with prosecutors.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Mike Hart

Len, precisely...

4 years, 1 month ago

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Phil Leister

Anyone saying this is over and KU is free and clear - you're crazy. KU never had to worry about federal charges against them, that's not what was at stake. The prosecution won their case that these guys "defrauded" universities by having them dole out scholarships to players made ineligible by the adidas guys. What's at stake now is what the NCAA does with the information. If they deem that KU played an ineligible player in De Sousa last year, then they can rule him ineligible and vacate last year's season.

This is so far from over because now our fate is in the NCAA's hands. We all know how quickly they operate and render decisions.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Jack Hoff

In all fairness to the NCAA. It has now become evident that Preston and his family were lying to both KU and the NCAA. At the time it was convenient to label the NCAA as the big bad meanie but based on the facts it seems like Preston and his mom weren't quite forthright about the whole situation. Understandably when the facts say one thing but the "victim" in the situation is lying and saying another; I can see how that would prolong the process.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Joe Black

No way they vacate last year's season for two reasons:
1) DeSousa only played in half of the season, he was in high school during first semester
2) The NCAA cleared him to play, the $2,500.00 received by DeSousa's guardian was not known to KU per the courts findings so the NCAA would be hard pressed to punish KU for something they didn't know about. The amount is small enough that as a previous poster pointed out could just be repaid by the guardian or DeSousa and he should get a couple game suspension and be eligible to play thereafter.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Bryce Landon

I hope you are right, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Len Shaffer

Virtually none of your "logic" makes any sense, Joe.

First of all, no one is saying they would vacate the entire season; the danger is that they might vacate games that DeSousa played in. So the fact that he didn't play in the first half of the season is completely irrelevant (except as it applies to those specific games).

Arguing that the NCAA had already approved him is also illogical. If new information comes out AFTER the NCAA has approved someone, there's nothing in their bylaws that says they can't reopen a case. Not only that, but I believe the NCAA's clearance of DeSousa had nothing to do with money, it was just about his academics. So again, the fact that they approved him once (and said that he was in good academic standing) has nothing whatsoever to do with the current situation.

I do agree with you when you say that the small amount helps, so perhaps the worst thing that will happen is he'll have to pay it back and maybe sit a few games, but your first two arguments don't hold water.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Dane Pratt

At this point I'm not confident that vacating last season is even our biggest concern.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Bill Kackley

Why do some people always try to look for the worst in every situation. I still believe in Bill Self and if he believes in Curtis Townsend then it is all good

4 years, 1 month ago

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Jack Hoff

Everybody and their dogs know many of these recruits are getting money from somewhere. It's always funny when I see many of these college athletes from poor backgrounds and they are wearing gold jewelry, have 100's of dollars in new tattoos and drive around in these nice cars with name brand clothing. Most of them aren't working with the athletic's schedule they have and money surely ain't falling from trees. Coaches know. They just play dumb. Nobody like Self or Coach K who know so much about their program and players would be this naive to these facts. They may not have been involved, but they knew... I mean common now. There is reason people use to always joke about big colleges and their payroll.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Dan Blomgren

In other words, De Sousa's amateur status has been compromised, according to Gassnola. So if Kansas played the 6-foot-9 forward under these circumstances it would risk being punished for playing somebody who likely will be ruled ineligible, at least for a period of time, retroactively. Either way, Kansas already played De Sousa in 20 games last season -- including all five games it played in the NCAA Tournament. Consequently, it's reasonable to expect that the Jayhawks will eventually be required to vacate their 2018 Final Four appearance if De Sousa is ruled to have been ineligible last season.

This is being reported on CBS Sports page

I bet DeSousa sits until after the NCAA investigation is over. KU can't risk forfeiting any more losses if Silvio is deemed ineligible. His season is over!

4 years, 1 month ago

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Doug Stahler

Maybe we earned some goodwill by never playing Preston and that will buy us some leniency for last year.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Craig Carson

Now that the schools are proven to have been defrauded..does the NCAA drop the hammer or do they show leniency since the schools were tricked into playing ineligible players?

4 years, 1 month ago

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Mike Hart

The NCAA will have access to the text exchanges between Townsend and Gassnola... and Gassnola and Self... that were not admissible in court. Regardless of court.. those text exchanges are out there... along with Townsend commenting on Zion Williamson and "We'll have to find a way to do what it takes" with regard to Williamson's demands. This will eventually lead to Duke, since Williamson went there. And in the Spring, all the Josh Jackson (Apple Jones) court issues with her affiliation with Dawkins will be coming out... so any NCAA investigation will be long-lasting and drawn out. Can't foresee DeSousa playing. And quite frankly and unfortunately, I don't think he SHOULD play

4 years, 1 month ago

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Bill Kackley

I doubt it, NCAA cleared him to play last year. You could say that it is just as much their responsibility to be aware of any payments to athletes as it is KU

4 years, 1 month ago

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Len Shaffer

As I mentioned above, I believe the NCAA approval was about his academics, not money, so that would be irrelevant to this situation.

4 years, 1 month ago

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David Klamm

You mean just like Josh Selby and Chieck Diallo who were both forced to sit games by the NCAA due to financial benefits as part of the NCAA clearance process. Or we could even go back to Darnell Jackson who was cleared academically by the NCAA but forced to pay back money and sit a handful of games by the NCAA. I'm pretty sure that NCAA clearance also includes issues around money or Enes Kanter would have played basketball for Kentucky.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Freddie Garza

My gosh, we are truly in a state of denial...

4 years, 1 month ago

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Joe Ross

No doubt.

Very disturbing to know some fellow fans lack the kind of integrity that wants a clean program, and are willing to check down to a plausible deniability.

Very disturbing.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Andy Tweedy

I think people are just trying to say it's okay until in their minds it is. I always think the way to break this down internally is ask yourself what you'd think if this was another school. If this were any other school, 90% of the people you're referring to would be sure they were guilty of something.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Len Shaffer

You said it, Andy.

I'm guessing that most people don't care, but this whole thing definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth going into the season, and I don't have my usual level of excitement for the upcoming games.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Mike Hart

Disturbing indeed!

4 years, 1 month ago

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Todd Hudnall

Joe - My take is different. I'd imagine everyone wants KU to have a clean program. I'd certainly trade a Final Four appearance for a "clean program". Yet, I think the issue is "innocent until proven guilty." At this point, all we know is that Self and Co. were friendly with Gatto (who was guilty). Friendly even in talking about the need to recruit top players isn't a crime or infraction. It seems unreasonable that any coach or program would be penalized for something they didn't participate in or were unaware of. It seems pretty clear by their actions that KU did not know about the payments to Preston and it has not been proven they knew anything about the payment to De Sousa or his guardian. Until it is proven, I do not feel KU should be penalized. Yet, I'm not so confident about De Sousa keeping his eligibility moving forward.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Craig Carson

I doubt he plays this season..which is unfair to him because i really think he never knew his guardian was trying to pimp him out

4 years, 1 month ago

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Randy Bombardier

So where's Kentucky in all This? Anyone really believe they are clean?

4 years, 1 month ago

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Dane Pratt

I think the defendants for the UA and Nike trials will strike plea bargains so we may never get the dirt on other programs. Which means KU, Louisville, NC State and Arizona are going to take the fall.

4 years, 1 month ago

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Craig Carson

so if those schools take plea deals to avoid a public trial and their names being dragged through the mud, wouldnt that be the same as admitting guilt?? it would seem if they and Nike thought they were innocent they wouldnt mind a trial or investigation?!!..if Nike schools accept plea deals, thus admitting that some shady recruiting goes on and the issue is systemic and not confined to a few schools, I dont see how the NCAA punishes any school named in this case??!! if they are gonna punish anyone with players given benefits, they better damn well be fair and investigate EVERYONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!..dont make a few schools the fall guys..F**K THAT!!!

4 years, 1 month ago

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Dane Pratt

If the UA and Nike defendants have done the same thing the Adidas defendants were just found guilty of then a trial might not be in their best interest. And, it’s not the schools who are the defendants so it’s not their call.

As far as the information that would have been released during a trial, I suppose the NCAA could request details from the FBI but keep in mind there could be incriminating evidence that harms KU as well.

4 years, 1 month ago

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