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Defense: Paying coaches was a scam, not bribes

NEW YORK — Defense attorneys for the two men accused of bribing college coaches tried to convince jurors Friday that the payments made weren’t really bribes, but just a hustle to get potential investors to part with their money.

But as the government brought on its second witness, the calls, text messages and emails showing discussions about paying players, their families and coaches — in exchange for getting top young players to sign with the defendants in return — continued to mount.

On Thursday, prosecutors showed video of a meeting that defendant and aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins attended in July 2017 with Creighton assistant coach Preston Murphy, where Murphy accepted a $6,000 payment from an undercover FBI agent posing as an investor in Dawkins’ new athlete financial services company.

Government witness Marty Blazer — who participated in the FBI investigation — testified Thursday that Murphy was one of the coaches that Dawkins was going to pay to gain influence with top players. During the meeting at a posh Las Vegas hotel room, Murphy talked about how he could deliver a top NBA prospect by the name of Marcus Phillips.

When Dawkins’ attorney Steven Haney questioned Blazer on Friday, he asked if Blazer would be surprised to know that “there’s nobody named Marcus Philips who ever played for Creighton University,” and that when Dawkins and Murphy walked out of the hotel room together they “laughed all the way down the hall.”

The Bluejays had a Marcus Foster at that time, but no Marcus Philips.

Haney also asked Blazer about some of the other payments made to coaches in that hotel room, including $6,000 to former TCU assistant Corey Barker and $13,000 to former USC coach Tony Bland, one of the coaches who has pleaded guilty in connection with the case. On Thursday, Blazer testified that Dawkins needed to get the money to Bland for a potential recruit — Marvin Bagley, who eventually enrolled at Duke.

In referring to Bland, Haney asked whether an assistant coach who made $400,000 and flies around in a private jet “could be bribed for a few thousand dollars?”

He asked whether Blazer followed Bland and Dawkins down to the casino floor and saw Bland give Dawkins the money back, and asked other questions about the payments that implied that money was actually returned to Dawkins, including a reference to Dawkins depositing $9,000 into an ATM machine shortly thereafter.

“With all your experience being a con man,” Haney said to Blazer, “you weren’t aware that Christian Dawkins was actually hustling all of you?”

Much of the questioning around Blazer centered on his checkered past as an athlete financial advisor involving investment fraud and falsifying documents, which resulted in his guilty plea in September 2017 to a variety of fraud-related charges.

“You stole money from NFL players who risked their lives every Sunday?” Haney asked him, referencing the money Blazer took from his professional football clients.

“I’m not proud of that,” Blazer said.

When another defense attorney pointed out how Blazer had lied on numerous other occasions, Blazer responded, “Yes, but I’m trying to do better.”

Blazer testified that he cooperated with the government in its investigation — including his testimony this week — in exchange for possible leniency on his sentence.

Dawkins was on trial along with ex-Adidas consultant Merl Code, whose attorney David Chaney drilled into Blazer’s motivation behind his participation in the government’s investigation, asking whether his eventual sentence would be based on the government’s evaluation of his testimony.

“My understanding is that I need to be truthful and testify. I’m here. I’m speaking truthfully,” Blazer said.

After Blazer’s questioning, the government showed the jury additional text messages, emails and transcripts of phone calls referring to coaches and players, with some referencing arrangements for payments. They also brought in their second witness: Dawkins’ former business partner Munish Sood, a New Jersey investment banker who was indicted along with Dawkins. Sood pleaded guilty to a series of bribery-related charges in August 2018 and became a witness for the government.

One piece of evidence presented was a copy of a text message between Code and Dawkins listing coaches in advance of their trip to Las Vegas in July 2017, with one of them listing former Nebraska assistant Kenya Hunter, who left in 2018 for UConn. Dawkins’ text to Code states, “Do we need to do Kenya? I think we have done enough for them to see value. Can Kenya really get dudes?” There is no reference to Hunter getting paid.

A phone call from July 2017 between Dawkins and the undercover FBI agent posing as an investor had Dawkins talking about former South Carolina and Oklahoma State coach Lamont Evans, who has also already pleaded guilty in the case. At the time, Blazer was paying Evans, but Dawkins said, “I was giving Lamont resources prior to knowing you guys,” and at another point in the call says, “He got a kid right now that I want.”

In connection with that transcript, prosecutors also showed messages with Evans around that same time referring to Jeffrey Carroll, who played for Oklahoma State at the time.

In that same July 2017 phone call with the undercover agent, Dawkins talks to the agent — posing as an investor — about previous correspondence in which there was a reference to money, saying, “Anything that comes of money, in this business … never text it because you never want to have a paper trail or anything.”

Prosecutors showed a copy of an email from April 2016 from Dawkins to Sood and Blazer listing several players and possible arrangements. “I will sign elite guys, that isn’t the issue,” Dawkins writes at one point in the email.

It reads in part: “Moving forward, I need confirmation on certain things to know how I will be able to operate. The business is nonstop, and I have to be able to sustain things and have a clear picture if I can do things with you guys or take opportunities elsewhere. I took care of these situations all the way through and there’s a lot of money out.”

Sood testified that he took that to mean that Dawkins was paying players, their families, and coaches from his personal funds.

One of the players listed was standout Miles Bridges, who would go on to play two seasons for Michigan State. “His family needs $2,500 a month. He should be a one-and-done and be drafted in the 15-20 range,” the email stated.

One of the other players listed was Edmond Sumner, who was a player at Xavier at the time. Sood testified that Sumner needed $75,000 “in the coming year.” Sood said he didn’t give Dawkins the $75,000, but that he gave Sumner a loan — after he was drafted — and also in order to secure him as a client, had to pay off a prior financial advisor with whom Sumner had an arrangement.

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