Marty Blazer couldn’t believe what he had gotten himself into. By this summer, the Pittsburgh investment adviser had spent months crisscrossing the U.S., passing cash to coaches at some of the country’s top college basketball programs. None of them seemed to know he was secretly helping federal authorities build one of the biggest alleged bribery and corruption cases in college sports history.
“This is surreal stuff,” Mr. Blazer told a person familiar with the investigation. “They just keep sticking their hand out.”
Three years ago, Mr. Blazer had no contacts to speak of in college basketball. Last week, he was Cooperating Witness-1 in criminal charges unsealed against coaches at major college sports programs, a top executive at the sportswear company Adidas AG and others. Ten people were arrested, and storied University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino was essentially fired.
Mr. Blazer’s central role is even more remarkable given that he didn’t have a relationship with any of the four assistant coaches charged in the investigation, which is continuing, and he has never spoken to Mr. Pitino, according to the person familiar with the investigation.
Steve Pence, a lawyer for Mr. Pitino, said he didn’t know if the coach ever met Mr. Blazer. “Coach Pitino is not the target of any criminal investigation,” said Mr. Pence.
The investment adviser cooperated for almost three years, including a close partnership with undercover agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to court documents and a person familiar with the matter. They said Mr. Blazer, 47 years old, helped dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in dozens of recorded meetings in Las Vegas, Miami, New York and elsewhere.
An FBI spokeswoman and a spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment.
The arrangement began after the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office told Mr. Blazer in the fall of 2014 that he could face charges. That trouble stemmed partly from a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Mr. Blazer’s investment firm.
He hoped to reduce any penalties he might face by somehow leading prosecutors to bigger, more prominent crimes, though he considered the strategy a long shot, said a person familiar with Mr. Blazer’s thinking.
Mr. Blazer, known to some by the nickname Blaze, told investigators he had bribed college coaches to steer players to him—and knew other people who would do so, prosecutors said last week.
In the spring of 2015, Mr. Blazer started making connections with agents and middlemen who he thought might lead to bribe-seeking coaches, according to prosecutors. Few coaches or players Mr. Blazer encountered while working undercover seemed aware of or bothered by his previous problems.
Mr. Blazer graduated in 1992 from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and worked at a string of securities firms, regulatory records show.
By 2008, he managed about $50 million in assets and had several athletes as clients. One early client was former National Football League running back Kevan Barlow, whom Mr. Blazer recruited by ingratiating himself with family members during Mr. Barlow’s senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, according to Mr. Barlow’s uncle, retired NFL running back Chuck Sanders.
Once Mr. Barlow turned professional in 2001, Mr. Blazer began taking out loans in the player’s name, according to Mr. Sanders. Mr. Barlow didn’t realize he was facing a shortfall of nearly $4 million until after he retired from football in 2007, said Mr. Sanders. Mr. Barlow declined to comment.
Mr. Barlow filed a complaint with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Mr. Blazer responded that the player had depleted his accounts “despite numerous warnings about his spending habits.” They settled for $850,000 in 2011, according to regulatory records.
In 2012, a Florida car dealership sued Mr. Blazer and a former college football player who had gone pro, alleging the two men owed $100,000 in payments on a Mercedes-Benz S550 that Mr. Blazer helped the player lease in 2009. According to court records, Mr. Blazer never responded to the lawsuit.
In North Carolina, at least two former University of North Carolina football players told state investigators that Mr. Blazer funneled thousands of dollars to them to pay for parking tickets, flights and other expenses, according to state-court records. Mr. Blazer hoped the players would make him their financial adviser, the records show. He hasn’t been charged in the investigation, which is continuing and is separate from the federal bribery and corruption cases.
The SEC investigation of Mr. Blazer that led him to cooperate with federal agents began in 2013. Securities regulators were scrutinizing a firm he co-founded with another adviser named Munish Sood. According to a complaint filed by the SEC in May 2016, one of Mr. Blazer’s clients, a pro athlete, claimed he had forged documents authorizing transfers of $450,000 and $100,000 from the client’s account to limited-liability companies related to two planned movies, tentatively titled “Mafia” and “Sibling.”
A lawyer for Mr. Sood didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The agency accused Mr. Blazer of moving money from another client’s account to make the first client whole. The SEC said Mr. Blazer lied to investigators when they confronted him about the transfers, saying they had been authorized by both clients.
In the spring of 2015, Mr. Blazer worked through old contacts to meet people who might lead him to possible criminal activity. He began recording phone calls and meetings, the criminal complaints said.
According to the criminal complaints unsealed last week, he told an unidentified friend who was a sports agent that he wanted to pay college coaches who would use their influence to send athletes to him as clients.
The complaints allege that the agent introduced Mr. Blazer to Rashan Michel, a former National Basketball Association referee who ran a high-end men’s clothing company in Atlanta that outfitted professional athletes. A lawyer for Mr. Michel, who was charged last week, didn’t respond to requests for comment Sunday.
Mr. Michel allegedly connected Mr. Blazer to Christian Dawkins, an agent with ASM Sports who the former referee said had paid bribes to college coaches, according to the complaint. Mr. Dawkins recommended speaking with Lamont Evans, then an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina.
Messrs. Dawkins and Evans also were charged last week. Their lawyers couldn’t be reached for comment.
In December 2015, Mr. Blazer asked Mr. Sood, his former business partner, if he would work with him and Mr. Dawkins to recruit college athletes as clients, the complaints allege. In March 2016, Messrs. Sood and Blazer met with Messrs. Dawkins and Evans at a restaurant in South Carolina, the complaints said.
Over the next few months, Mr. Blazer regularly spoke with Mr. Evans, who moved to a new coaching job at Oklahoma State University, and allegedly discussed recruits and gave the coach cash. Mr. Evans promised to send players to Mr. Blazer, according to the complaints.
By last October, Mr. Evans hadn’t produced any clients for Mr. Blazer, and the investigation seemed stagnant, according to a complaint and people familiar with the matter. Still working without a signed cooperation agreement, Mr. Blazer grew concerned that he might still face criminal charges and prison time, one of those people said. “Marty was desperate,” the person added.
The FBI was brought in last fall to work on the case, people familiar with the investigation said. There was a promising new lead: Mr. Michel told Mr. Blazer that Chuck Person, a former NBA star working as associate head coach at Auburn University, was looking for money, according to the criminal complaints.
In late November, Messrs. Michel and Blazer met with Mr. Person at an Alabama restaurant, while FBI agents conducted surveillance, the complaints said. Authorities gave Mr. Blazer $5,000 in cash, which Mr. Blazer gave to Mr. Michel, who handed the money to Mr. Person in his car. A lawyer for Mr. Person couldn’t be reached for comment.
By December, the government had secured a court-authorized wiretap on Mr. Person’s phone, according to the complaints. Investigators heard Mr. Person falsely tell a player’s mother that Mr. Blazer had advised NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who played college basketball at Auburn.
In March, FBI agents watched as Mr. Sood met with several people at a restaurant in Las Vegas, the complaints said. Prosecutors alleged it was a meeting to arrange paying basketball coaches at the University of Arizona. Mr. Sood was charged last week.
By late April, the FBI had a wiretap on the phone of Mr. Blazer’s former business partner, and Arizona assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was drawn into the alleged scheme, according to prosecutors. He was charged last week. His lawyer couldn’t be reached for comment.
In early May, Mr. Dawkins, the sports agent, was fired from ASM Sports after an investigation by the NBA players’ union found he had misused a client’s credit card. Mr. Sood told Mr. Dawkins he would help him start his own management company, according to the complaints.
At a bar in Miami, Mr. Blazer offered Mr. Sood a potential partner and financial backer for Mr. Dawkins, prosecutors said. The potential partner was actually an undercover FBI agent. Another undercover agent joined the group later as a “business associate.”
Mr. Blazer worked closely with the undercover FBI agents, arranging meetings at fancy hotels and expensive steakhouses, according to a person familiar with the case.
Still, Mr. Blazer sometimes found himself on the outside as the investigation grew, according to people familiar with the matter. He knew Messrs. Sood and Dawkins were cutting him out of business meetings, and investigators were scrutinizing possible schemes that had little or no connection to Mr. Blazer.
For example, a July conversation caught on a wiretap of Mr. Dawkins’s phone was the first indication of $100,000 that Adidas had pledged to the family of a top high-school recruit, Brian Bowen. Prosecutors alleged the aim was to lure Mr. Bowen to Louisville and secure his allegiance to Adidas through an endorsement contract.
Adidas has said it was unaware of any misconduct and would cooperate with authorities. Mr. Bowen’s father declined to comment. Mr. Bowen, now a Louisville freshman, didn’t participate in the team’s first practice on Sunday, a Louisville spokesman said.
On July 27, while in Las Vegas for meetings, Mr. Blazer met with Mr. Dawkins, an undercover FBI agent, a Louisville assistant coach and the director of an Adidas-sponsored youth basketball program in a hotel room, according to one of the complaints.
The men allegedly discussed paying the family of another high-school player to bring him to Louisville—and what Adidas would likely contribute to the cause. The Louisville coach wasn’t identified in the complaint. A Louisville spokesman declined to comment on the investigation.
Investigators later learned through phone records that James Gatto, an Adidas executive charged as part of the investigation, and Mr. Pitino, the Louisville head coach, spoke several times by phone in May and early June, just before Mr. Bowen decided to attend Louisville, according to a complaint. A lawyer for Mr. Gatto didn’t respond to requests for comment.
When the charges were unsealed Sept. 26, acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said they revealed “the dark underbelly of college basketball.”
About 10 days earlier, Mr. Blazer had pleaded guilty to five counts in a Manhattan federal courtroom, but the court filings were sealed until last week.
Four of the counts were related to the SEC civil case, which resulted in penalties and interest totaling more than $1.5 million. The fifth count related to wire fraud in a scheme “from in or around 2000 through 2013” to make loans and payments to college athletes, according to the court records.
It won’t be clear for months what, if anything, Mr. Blazer gained in return for helping the government. According to his signed cooperation agreement, he faces from two years to 67 years in prison, though prosecutors said they would consider supporting a shorter sentence. Martin A. Dietz, a lawyer for Mr. Blazer, said his client “fully accepts responsibility for his actions.”
Date Posted: Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017 , Total Page Views: 1273
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