College hoops corruption case hits snag due to FBI conflict

Seeds of doubt were planted in the FBI’s college hoops corruption case on Thursday. (AP)
Seeds of doubt were planted in the FBI’s college hoops corruption case on Thursday. (AP)

Let’s start with the macro: The federal investigation into the basketball recruiting underworld isn’t going away. There’s been too much time, money and professional equity invested into the massive investigation for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York to just punt the entire case.

Too many lives have been altered, careers ended, programs rattled and potential crimes uncovered to just walk away. With 10 arrests in September, three active criminal complaints and a wide-ranging investigation headed toward its fourth year, the federal government has given no indication it’ll be abandoning its work.

But in the micro, a case predicated on some pretzel legal logic got a little more twisted this week. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday morning that an FBI agent involved in the case in an undercover capacity is under criminal investigation for misappropriating money for drinking, gambling and eating. Ultimately, the Journal reported, it could compromise the FBI agent’s ability to serve as a witness for the prosecution.

Suddenly, a case that’s shrouded the entire college basketball season and sport now carries a shroud of its own.

To the fresh-faced young assistant U.S. Attorneys tasked with prosecuting this case, this is the equivalent of a stiff jab to their Yale chins.

“This is a bad development for the prosecution,” said a person with direct knowledge of the case. “The general public and sports fans were promised a bill of goods by the prosecutors. It’s pretty clear early on in this case, they’re not the white knights they said they were.”

The newsbreak may mark a pivot point for the various defense teams in the case. For four months, the case has been hallmarked by salacious headlines, perp walks after court appearances and an entire sport quietly consumed by who could be the next to go down. This may mark a tenor shift to the holes in the case, one of which was summed up by a recent motion to dismiss by three defendants: “It is not against the law to offer a financial incentive to a family to persuade them to send their son or daughter to a particular college.”

While there are soft areas for the defense attorneys to attack, there’s good reason for the entire sport of college basketball to remain shaken. Yahoo Sports confirmed this week that the federal government has been actively interviewing people tied to the case, including those not named in any of the public documents. The attorneys in the case have also been sent hundreds of hours of phone wiretaps, troves of documents and video related to the case. No one tied to the case can discuss what’s been revealed on those because of a court-issued protective order. But it’s a sign the case is moving along, and there are plenty of bigger names sweating other than the four assistant coaches who’ve been arrested. (Of the 10 men arrested, only two haven’t been indicted – grassroots coach Brad Augustine and financier Munish Sood – which has led many to speculate they’re cooperating with authorities.)

That flurry of activity underscores the obvious – these cases will continue to plod along. (The Louisville Courier Journal reported on Wednesday that a trial date has been set for former Auburn assistant Chuck Person and suit salesman Rashan Michel for February of 2019.)

There’s a tricky duality to the cases. The federal government has done a masterful job proving what anyone who has been following the sport without a blindfold for the last few decades has seen clearly – there’s not a rogue minority breaking NCAA rules. The investigation revealed what we already knew – success in college basketball is predicated on brokering deals for recruits and navigating a complex underworld of shoe companies, middle men and agents. The FBI investigation’s wiretaps show the commonality of player transactions – an alleged six-figure payment for a recruit outside the top 20, bribe money referred to as “bread” and one middle-man, Christian Dawkins, claiming “you can make millions off one kid.”

The federal documents tied to the case show these weren’t rogue actors, more Storm Troopers marching in line in an industry where illicit practices were so commonplace that no one realized they were potentially breaking the law.

But here’s the duality for the prosecution: Playing NCAA mall cop doesn’t equate to prosecuting federal crimes. (Although they did expose how truly ill-equipped the current NCAA enforcement officials are to police the sport.)

And that brings us back to the young assistant U.S. Attorneys prosecuting this case. Can they prove there are real victims? Can they withstand the sloppy investigative tactics? Can they compel the little fish they’ve arrested and indicted to bring in bigger fish?

The feds had their grand press conference in Brooklyn in September, where then-U.S. Attorney Joon Kim declared, “We have your playbook.” Kim is gone now, replaced by Geoffrey S. Berman, who hasn’t given any hint of his interest in prosecuting the basketball case. The general expectation in legal circles is to expect the approach to this case to remain similar to what it was under Kim.

The FBI mishap in this case doesn’t exactly bathe in glory a bureau that’s already ensconced in plenty of turmoil elsewhere. In the macro, this revelation may not shift the paradigm of an expansive and complicated case. But in the micro, it plants further seeds of doubt as to whether this case is going to be remembered for prosecuting federal crimes or NCAA rules. These cases are likely years from being completed, and on Thursday they just got a little harder to prosecute.

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