The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

An FBI investigation into college basketball gone wrong

Episode Summary

An FBI investigation tried to expose malfeasance in the world of NCAA men’s basketball. Instead, the mirror was turned on the agency itself when one of the lead agents abused his position.

Episode Notes

An FBI investigation tried to expose malfeasance in the world of NCAA men’s basketball. Instead, the mirror was turned on the agency itself when one of the lead agents abused his position.

Today, you’ll hear the story of how that came to be — and whether the investigation turned up anything. Read the full story here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times sports investigative reporter Nathan Fenno

More reading:

How an FBI agent’s wild Vegas weekend stained an investigation into NCAA basketball corruption

10 charged in college basketball corruption probe

Congressional committee wants answers in college basketball bribery scandal

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: Here at The Times, we're still buzzing over college sports. A couple of weeks back, we profiled elite gymnasts on new NCAA rules that allow student athletes to profit off their names and images.

Jordan Chiles: I started at like a couple grand and it went to like over five, and then it gradually just like went to 10, and so it just like got higher as I went.

Gustavo Arellano: It was a huge recent development in the multibillion-dollar NCAA industry, with some college athletes now being able to rake millions, and it's meant to be a corrective to a decades-long, shady underground economy. 

Press Conference: Today we announced charges of fraud and corruption in the world of college basketball.

Gustavo Arellano: In this episode, on the heels of last week's NCAA March Madness championships, we're focusing on men's college basketball.

Press Conference: The picture painted by the charges brought today is not a pretty one.

Gustavo Arellano: An L.A. Times investigation revisits one big case in 2017, brought by the FBI.

Press Conference: In all, we have charged 10 people in three separate complaints.

Gustavo Arellano: The Times examined thousands of pages of court testimony, intercepted phone calls, text messages, emails and performance reviews. These records provide a detailed look inside the high-profile investigation.

Press Conference: Coaches at some of the nation's top programs soliciting and accepting cash bribes, managers and financial advisors circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of one of the world's largest sportswear companies secretly funneling cash to the families of high school recruits.

Gustavo Arellano: But almost six years later, men's college basketball did not undergo seismic reforms. And what people don't know was that the lead FBI agent was himself convicted of crimes in his handling of the investigation.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” It's Wednesday, April 12th, 2023. Today, L.A. Times Investigative reporter Nathan Fenno on new details and scrutiny surrounding the 2017 botched FBI case code named Ballerz. 

Nathan, welcome to “The Times.”

Nathan Fenno: Thanks for having me on.

Gustavo Arellano: First off, man, what a great investigation by you, but also disheartening, you know, uh. So, before we get into the crazy details, we should start at the beginning. What set off the initial FBI investigation into college sports?

Nathan Fenno: So this goes back almost a decade to 2014. You have this financial advisor, a guy named Marty Blazer, back in, uh, Pennsylvania, who is under investigation for misappropriating more than $2 million from clients, many of whom are professional athletes. And he starts talking to the feds and, uh, eventually agrees to cooperate and starts making secret recordings of college athletes, their parents, sports agents, all these people, all of course, in hopes of receiving leniency for his own crimes.

So Marty Blazer cooperates with the feds for almost two years, and according to all the documents we've seen, it didn't really lead anywhere. So then the FBI enters the picture. Scott Carpenter, a veteran FBI agent, is appointed to be the lead case agent in, uh, late 2016. He’s an Army veteran, did two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. Carpenter had been with the FBI for almost a decade by that point in time. He'd worked on high-profile FBI cases before, like the investigation of the global soccer corruption. He's a really well-respected guy and his talents seem to be the perfect fit for this investigation.

Gustavo Arellano: So what was Carpenter's plan to get into this world?

Nathan Fenno: So after the first several months of investigation by the FBI, they bring in an undercover FBI agent. He uses the name Jeff D'Angelo. That's of course a fake name. He's posing as this rich, 30-something guy from New Jersey. Some of the people who met him called him like a “Jersey Shore” character, sort of a trust fund wannabe: big personality, hair slicked back, big talker, fancy clothes, the whole nine yards.

Jeff D'Angelo: I would like to develop a network of coaches for me for insurance to have a bigger influence at the collegiate level.

Nathan Fenno: Jeff D'Angelo, the undercover FBI agent, was posing as somebody who wanted to invest in a sports management company.

Jeff D'Angelo: Here's the model. Like I, we're gonna, we're, I'm funding you. Your, your, your, your side of the business, and I'm staying out of your way and you're gonna do that.

Nathan Fenno: He seemed to have tons of money and he seemed to find a willing partner in Christian Dawkins.

Christian Dawkins: OK, for the three grand a month is essentially helping me get access to Adidas’ platform, helping me maintain relationships, helping us continue to guarantee the players. I think that's what the three grand should be.

Nathan Fenno: Christian Dawkins is a 20-something who's been recruiting players for sports agents for several years: super ambitious, big dreams. He's wanted to start a sports management company, and in this undercover FBI agent, Jeff D'Angelo, he thinks he's finally found the guy who can provide the money to turn this dream into reality.

Jeff D'Angelo: And then we just kind of, you know, we, we have our conversation, we agree to the terms, and we go from there.

Nathan Fenno: So Jeff D'Angelo, the undercover FBI agent, asks Christian Dawkins to set up meetings in Las Vegas with several college coaches with the idea that bribes would be paid to some of these coaches to pressure their players to retain this sports management company that they were starting up.

Jeff D'Angelo: The coaches that are on our payroll that we're controlling, it's almost like a pseudo-guarantee that they're going to come back and sign with us.

Nathan Fenno: So what's absolutely crucial to understand is Dawkins finds this whole plan to bribe college coaches to be absolutely idiotic.

Christian Dawkins: Honestly, it doesn't make sense to spend it. if you just want to be Santa Claus and just give people money, well [bleep], let's just take that money and just go to the strip club and just buy hookers 

Nathan Fenno: He goes back and forth with Jeff D'Angelo about this.

Chris Dawkins: This is the problem with that though, Jeff, yeah, I'm sure he does. But does those coaches really matter, is my thing to you. Like, this is the thing, bro: It's only a handful of schools that have, that produces NBA players, bro.

Nathan Fenno: He tries to reason with him, he gets upset with him, and in the end, Jeff D'Angelo is adamant they have to bribe college coaches. But Christian Dawkins says that's just not the way things are done. The college coaches don't hold the ultimate influence in the lives of these basketball players. Parents and handlers and AAU coaches and things like that are the folks who actually have the influence, not the college coaches, but DeAngelo's absolutely hellbent on giving money to the coaches.

Jeff D'Angelo: I got a place, you know, nice place to meet. Um, and I was going to just make a, uh, make arrangements to have, you know, like a good amount of cash out there to just make sure we can conduct business.

Nathan Fenno: So all this culminates in July of 2017 with this undercover operation in Las Vegas. 

Gustavo Arellano: Coming up: the sting operation.

Nathan, so this sting operation in Las Vegas, puppet-mastered by lead FBI agent Scott Carpenter. He had all the people that he needed there to bribe college coaches. What happened?

Nathan Fenno: It's July, 2017 and these guys end up in Las Vegas, and this is super over the top. It's sort of, maybe, like your ultimate weekend in Las Vegas, except the government is paying for the whole thing. It's absolutely scorching outside and inside this fancy penthouse at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, there's all sorts of food and alcohol and everything's being recorded by hidden cameras. And over about 2 1/2 days, Jeff D'Angelo and Christian Dawkins meet with about 10 coaches in this penthouse suite. And to a few of them, Jeff D'Angelo hands over envelopes stuffed with cash.

HIDDEN CAMERA: We gonna provide you something, you know, to make sure the kids that you’re involved with we get back.

Nathan Fenno: And what the feds alleged is that was an exchange for promises these coaches would steer their players or direct their players to retain this fledgling sports agency. This all culminated at a poolside cabana, of all things, at the Cosmopolitan. There was a final transaction between D'Angelo and a coach. And then, the FBI agents who had spent, uh, $1,500 in a food and beverage minimum to, to rent this cabana, decided to spend the afternoon there, and, by all accounts, the agents thought things had gone really well. 

Gustavo Arellano: OK, so the FBI's sting was successful for them, more or less, so what happened after that?

Nathan Fenno: Court records describe a pretty good time at the cabana. So there were four FBI agents — including Scott Carpenter, the lead case agent — and, he admitted to drinking nearly a fifth of vodka in the afternoon they spent at the cabana and at least a six-pack of beer.

Somehow he was able to get back to the penthouse suite afterward, showered and changed clothes and got cleaned up. And before leaving the suite, he grabbed 10 grand in government money from the safe in the room. The four agents headed, uh, next door to the Bellagio, ended up in a high-roller blackjack lounge there, and Carpenter used that 10 grand of government money to buy gaming chips and, uh, sat down at the blackjack table and, uh, started gambling 

It didn't go well. When it was all said and done, Carpenter had gambled for two or three hours and lost about $13,500. Court records are vague about what the other three agents were doing other than they were at the bar in the lounge, allegedly watching what was going on.

Gustavo Arellano: OK, well, what was the reaction, though, for Carpenter losing not just the $10,000, but even more? I'm sure his handlers weren't happy with that.

Nathan Fenno: Yeah, so eventually when these agents return to New York where they were based, a few days later, Carpenter fesses up to his supervisor and is pulled from the operation, and he, uh, quickly checks into a, uh, inpatient alcohol rehabilitation facility. But again, it's important to note he keeps his service weapon, keeps his security clearance, keeps his badge, keeps his job.

Gustavo Arellano: Wow. So you have a lead FBI agent gambling away taxpayer money, drinking vodka. to put it lightly. Was any of this ever mentioned publicly once details of the investigation came out?

Nathan Fenno: Yeah, so the investigation becomes public in September 2017. It was a huge deal, coast-to-coast news.

AP: The court papers outline a two-year investigation into bribes paid to coaches and assistants to steer basketball players to agents, and in some cases schools. Among those charged is the director of international sports marketing at Adidas, which has huge investments outfitting pros and college athletes as well as teams.

Nathan Fenno: Carpenter, and what happened in Vegas, of course, is not mentioned then. In all, 10 guys were charged in this investigation. Among them were four college assistant coaches. They were all fired, and eventually pleaded guilty to felonies, and their careers were turned upside down.

Christian Dawkins the 20-something who was starting up this sports management company, got the longest prison sentence of the guys convicted in the case. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, was actually, uh, just released at the end of this past March.

The idea though, that something had gone wrong there starts to kind of circulate, and there's a few stories about it in the months and years that follow, but there's no specifics about it. These details, this incident is, uh, kept very, very much in the background. 

Gustavo Arellano: And so you have this big press conference, you have these convictions, but the sordidness of what happened during the investigation didn't really come out until you came in. So what got you interested into looking into the misconduct?

Nathan Fenno: In February of last year, Scott Carpenter pleaded guilty to gambling away this government money. Now it's important to note he only pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. All the other coaches who were either charged or convicted in this case got hit with felonies. And as we know, there's a big gulf between getting hit with a federal felony and a misdemeanor.  But, uh, after Scott Carpenter's guilty plea in early 2020, that opened a door to reexamine the whole investigation. There were new details to sift through because of the Carpenter court case, and it really allowed us to explore this whole investigation through the prism of the lead agent.

Gustavo Arellano: What did the FBI have to say about your reporting?

Nathan Fenno: They declined to comment. Have a lot of questions for ’em, still do, but, uh, it's not something they want to talk about.

Gustavo Arellano: After the break, what the Ballerz investigation means for men's college basketball today.

Nathan, it's 2023. What's happened since the investigation ended?

Nathan Fenno: So this whole investigation, for as much sound and fury as there was at the time, it just sort of faded away. It didn't lead to dramatic transformation or structural change. It didn't end the careers of high-profile coaches. The sport has, uh, continued to make tons of money, continued to be incredibly popular, as we've just seen with the NCAA tournament just wrapped up.

The biggest change in college basketball, from when this investigation was unveiled to today, is probably the fact that college athletes can now profit off the use of their name, image and likeness, which has allowed companies that were involved in this FBI investigation, like Adidas — they don't need middlemen or anything like that; they can sponsor kids directly if they want to.

Gustavo Arellano: Did this investigation at least reveal other things about men's college basketball, because, as you know especially, this is a sport that has been mired in all sorts of allegations of financial malfeasance for decades, decades.

Nathan Fenno: Some of the coaches and other other guys caught up in this investigation, probably to no surprise, have really strong feelings about sort of the structural issues within the sport, where you have some people making a ton of money off of it. You know, high-profile coaches, assistants, athletic directors, shoe companies — this is a multi, multi, multimillion-dollar industry, um, except for the kids on the court. They're getting a college scholarship. But they of course are prohibited from being compensated for their on-court ability. That is a issue that continues to percolate today.

Gustavo Arellano: What did the coaches that were convicted have to say about all this?

Nathan Fenno: So these guys were left to pick up the pieces of their lives, and most of them will say, hey, I screwed up, but I thought I might have been violating NCAA rules. I had no idea any of this would be a federal crime, much less a federal felony. You know, one of these coaches who was initially charged and then the charges were dropped, is a guy named Jonathan Bradley Augustine, a Florida youth basketball coach. And he had really strong feelings about this whole saga, and he called it a massive waste of time on everybody's part. You know, on, on the part of the coaches whose careers were upended, on the part of the prosecutors who were focused on this instead of other crimes, and even with FBI agents, he same way.

One of the things that if you talk to people caught up in the case or familiar with it, that inevitably comes up is that the four assistant coaches who were charged and convicted are all Black. And that's something that really bothers, uh, certainly their defense attorneys and, uh, many of these coaches and they see a racial element to all of this. And, uh, I spoke with Merl Code, who's a, a former college basketball player, worked for Adidas, worked for Nike, and became a target of this sting and served time in prison because of this investigation. He had told me that, you know, when you're a Black assistant coach, you've got the world on your shoulders. If you don't get kids, you don't keep your job. But if you don't do what's necessary to get kids, you're not going to be successful. And what's necessary to get kids is to help the family. And by “help the family,” that can mean directing some cash their way, or helping out with the rent payment, or whatever. 

So there's a deeper story here about the power imbalance, if you will, that some folks see in college basketball, despite the, the happy times we all see on the court and whatnot.

Gustavo Arellano: Nathan, does the FBI usually do these types of investigations into college sports? I mean, do they think it's something so crucial to the nation's national security that they devote a lot of funds to it?

Nathan Fenno: That's a really good question and the short answer is we don't know how many of these investigations into college sports have taken place. But I'll tell you this, we got a copy of the performance review for Scott Carpenter, the lead FBI agent in this case, and it noted that this investigation was the top priority for the public corruption squad of the New York FBI office for almost all of 2017.

And, our listeners can make of that what they will, but there's a lot of public corruption out there, and there's a good question to be asked if this is the best use of time and resources for, honor of agencies in Numark, FBI and, and its public corruption squad.

There's some broader, I guess, philosophical questions, you know: How do you define corruption? Is it corrupt for a college basketball player, for example, or their family to make money because the kid is good at their sport? That might violate a rule and be corrupt by, you know, an organization's standards. But does that become a federal crime? There's just a lot of questions this investigation has generated that haven't been answered yet.

Gustavo Arellano: Nathan Fenno, thank you so much for this conversation

Nathan Fenno: Thanks for having me.

Gustavo Arellano: And you can read more about the Ballerz investigation and watch behind-the-scenes video and read the original story at

Nathan, whatever happened to that “Jersey Shore”-style character, Jeff D’Angelo?

Nathan Fenno: So Jeff D’Angelo in early August of 2017 told Christian Dawkins that he had to head to Italy to take care of his ailing mother, and he vanished. He was never heard from in the case again.

Gustavo Arellano: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Denise Guerra was the jefa on this episode. It was edited by Jazmín Aguilera, and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. Special thanks to video producer Jackeline Luna. 

Our show's produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicholas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre.