College basketball corruption trial: Payments for Kansas players and to ex-NC State assistant detailed by witness
A former Adidas consultant testified he tried to get Deandre Ayton's mother housing and a job in an effort to recruit Ayton to Kansas
NEW YORK — Former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola, a cooperating witness for the government in the college basketball corruption trial, gave specifics Thursday about the illicit money deals he made to multiple families of current and former college basketball players.
In another day of significant, revealing testimony on the 26th floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse, Gassnola testified he made two payments to the family of former NC State star Dennis Smith Jr., who is now with the Dallas Mavericks. Gassnola's first payment was when Smith was a junior in high school. The second came in 2015 when — and this will be of particular interest to the NCAA — Gassnola delivered $40,000 in cash to then-NC State assistant Orlando Early at Early's house. Early said he would then give it to Smith's trainer.
Gassnola also testified that he paid $15,000 to a family friend of Deandre Ayton that was to be given to Ayton's mother. This was when Ayton was a junior in high school. The money was given to Ayton's family in an attempt to "establish a relationship" and get Ayton on board with Adidas, Gassnola said.
Facing cross-examination from the defense, Gassnola testified to attempting to get Ayton's mother permanent housing and a job in Kansas in an effort to recruit Ayton to KU. Gassnola also said he felt he let Kansas coach Bill Self down in his outside recruiting efforts after Ayton committed to Arizona.
It's clear that Gassnola's become a most critical witness, for both sides, in this hearing. The prosecution's direct examination brought out much more information -- problematic information at that -- against colleges, coaching staffs and the nature of recruiting in major college basketball.
Kansas was a big subject on Thursday. Gassnola testified that he paid $2,500 to current KU forward Silvio De Sousa's guardian and that he became aware that a University of Maryland booster was providing $60,000 to De Sousa's guardian, Fenny Falmagne. Gassnola was set on trying to pay $20,000 to Falmagne — then the FBI case went public and he couldn't make the payment.
The relationship between Gassnola and Falmagne began after KU assistant Kurtis Townsend asked Gassnola to connect Falmagne with Adidas, as Falmagne was looking for the Angolan National Team to get product from Adidas. Gassnola said he had a "brief, brief conversation" with Self about this but said he kept payments to De Sousa's guardian secret from Self and Townsend.
On Sept. 11, 2017, Gassnola was caught on a tapped phone call with Gatto about De Sousa and said, "I've got to get this guy another 20 grand ... because I've got to get him out from under this Under Armour deal. And the deal he's got with this guy who is taking care of him. He wants his money back because the kid didn't go to Maryland."
But De Sousa wasn't the only Kansas player Gassnola was dealing with. Gassnola testified that he paid $90,000 in multiple cash and wire transfers to former Kansas player Billy Preston's mother and her partner. The first cash drop of $30,000 came in a New York City hotel room and the second cash drop of $20,000 was in a Las Vegas hotel room, he said.
The originations for the forbidden payment scheme started when Gassnola and Gatto acted as Adidas "ambassadors" at Kansas' Late Night at the Phog event in 2016. It was then, in Gassnola's hotel room, that he told Preston's mother and her partner that he wanted to be the only person paying the family. Gassnola heard Preston's family was being taken care of by "outside entities" and sought complete control over their financial interests as Preston was being recruited.
Preston, who committed and was accepted to KU, initially had eligibility questions because of a car mishap in the fall of 2017, his freshman year. The car was a Dodge Charger that the defense said belonged to Preston's late great-grandmother.
Kansas accepted explanation from the Preston family about the car situation, but it was publicly disclosed for the first time on Thursday that Kansas also pressed Preston's mother about if she received money elsewhere. This matter brought Preston's eligibility to an impasse; he never played for the Jayhawks.
In an amusing and naive twist, Gassnola said Preston's mother planned to tell KU investigators that she was intimately involved with Gassnola, which would -- in her mind -- make the $90,000 payments "OK."
The defense brought up a few things that were not further pursued due to objections from the prosecution. One of them was the allegation that former Maryland player Diamond Stone had his high school coach asking for $150,000 "in order to recruit him for Adidas." Gassnola and Adidas didn't seriously pursue Stone.
One clear point of attack for the defense is to build a basis on what money was retrieved from where in an effort to pay players and their families. Gassnola has repeatedly said the money he provided to players' families came from Adidas and Gatto. The defense introduced a new name into the proceedings on Thursday: Martin Fox, a man who "wears many hats," someone who was a money guy but, according to Gassnola, a man who did not work at Adidas. Entered into evidence were two bank statements that showed Fox wired two $40,000 payments to Gassnola's account.
A few more wiretapped phone calls, and many text messages, were put out for the jury. One communication highlighted was phone conversation between Gatto and Merl Code. The context of the call was about current UNC freshman Nassir Little, who was being recruited by Miami at the time. On that call, Gatto asks, "Miami's hot?" and Code claims Arizona had offered $150,000 for Little. Gatto and Code discuss if they can match. In light of the FBI case coming to light, Little's family later thoroughly denied being offered any money for their son's recruitment.
Also entered into evidence Thursday were texts and calls between Gassnola and defendant Christian Dawkins, conversations that stemmed from Gassnola being shocked that former AAU coach James Brad Augustine was aware of Brian Bowen II's family getting $100,000 to go to Louisville in 2017.
Augustine was originally charged in the case but was freed of liability long before this case went to trial.
"Only u me Merl and Gatto new (sic) that Not smart business. Stop telling ppl that," Gassnola texted to Dawkins.
On a phone call the next day between Gassnola and Dawkins, Gassnola is heard discussing the Bowen deal and tells Dawkins of Augustine, "This guy ain't lying because there's only four people that know about that." Gassnola went on to identify those four as Code, Gatto, Dawkins and former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson. Dawkins disputed Gassnola's assertion of Johnson's involvement.
Gassnola testified that he kept the Bowen payment from former Cardinals coach Rick Pitino. A text between Gassnola and Pitino after Bowen committed read:
"Gassnola: HOFer. Hope your (sic) in a good place. Bowen will help. Talk soon.
Pitino: [thumbs up emoji]"
And after Bowen II committed to Louisville, Gassnola texted Code on May 31, 2017 and wrote, "BTW this Bowen thing looks good for us perception wise I think."
On the day the story broke about the FBI's investigation into college basketball corruption, Gassnola said he found out about the news from Adidas colleagues. The first people he reached out to: his attorney and Pitino.
"My mind was going crazy and I was looking for information," Gassnola said, remembering being frantic on an airplane as he learned of the FBI's case.
Gassnola said he never told Pitino about Adidas paying the Bowen family and said he wasn't sure why he reached out to Pitino that day. He also wired tens of thousands of dollars from his AAU team's account to his fiancées account. Why?
"I figured it was a matter of time before you guys knocked on my door," Gassnola said on the stand, referring to the federal government.
The prosecution's direct examination of Gassnola is done. The defense's cross-examination remains ongoing; Thursday afternoon's session was a stop-and-go affair, with numerous objections from the prosecution sustained by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan.
Whatever tactic the defense is getting at, it's not moving there swiftly, easily or convincingly. What it can bring out of Gassnola on Monday could prove pivotal for a jury who's watched the prosecution pull information with ease from its witnesses and observed the defense whittle its way to a point that's losing its clarity as the trial nudges along.
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