Former Kansas basketball player Billy Preston, his car and payments to his mother were focal points of testimony by Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola during the continuation of his time on the stand in federal court on Thursday in New York.
Gassnola testified that he paid Preston’s mother, Nicole Player, and her partner $89,000 over the span of almost one year. That included a $30,000 payout made in early November 2016 at a New York hotel and $20,000 in January 2017 in Las Vegas. Gassnola, through his fiancée, wired $20,000 to Player’s partner, Timicha Kirby, in February 2017. Gassnola also sent Player $15,000 in June 2017 and $4,000 in late September 2017.
Also Thursday, Gassnola testified he paid the guardian of current KU sophomore Silvio De Sousa $2,500 for online courses so that De Sousa could graduate high school. Gassnola also said he agreed to pay $20,000 to help the guardian repay a Maryland booster who gave him $60,000, but Gassnola never paid, he said.
According to his testimony, Gassnola first discussed the payments to Preston’s family following KU’s Late Night in the Phog in October 2016. Preston signed his letter of intent to play at KU in November 2016.
“I had heard for awhile that they were taking money from outside influences,” Gassnola said. “So I told those ladies that from now on stop taking money from those entities and just come to me and I’ll take care of it.”
When asked why, Gassnola said he “didn’t think those other people would conceal (the payments) very good” from KU’s coaching staff. Gassnola also testified he didn’t tell “a thing” about the payments he made to Preston’s family to anyone at KU.
Gassnola, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, is a government witness in the case against Adidas executive Jim Gatto and two other defendants, who are accused of wire fraud conspiracy by paying the families of top basketball recruits, thus rendering them ineligible under NCAA rules and defrauding the schools, including Kansas.
Preston, who sat out KU’s first game last season for missing curfew and class, according to Jayhawks coach Bill Self, was not allowed to play KU’s next game against Kentucky on Nov. 14, 2017 while the school looked into the “financial picture” regarding his vehicle after a one-car accident on campus. Preston sat out the next 16 games after that.
Gatto’s defense attorney, Michael S. Schachter, said before the jury was seated Thursday that KU found Preston’s Dodge Charger was registered to his deceased grandmother in Florida and was satisfied the car was not a NCAA violation. The car investigation, though, led KU to discover the wire payments from Gassnola to Player.
According to text messages shown in court, Player wrote in an Aug. 15, 2017 message to Gassnola that she got Preston a Charger and was going to drive it to him.
Then, sometime after Sept. 26, 2017, which is when Gassnola said he became aware of the federal investigation, again spoke with Player, who was, according to Gassnola’s testimony, concerned KU was “going to find out about the money that I had given her.” Gassnola testified that Player wanted him to tell Kansas officials they were in an intimate relationship, which would have made the payments allowable under NCAA rules. Asked if it was accurate that he was in a relationship with Player, Gassnola said no.
Eli J. Mark, assistant U.S. attorney, said in court that Player was “a member of the conspiracy” while introducing a text message chain dated Nov. 13, 2017 between Player and Preston, after KU’s investigation started. The text messages show Player directs “her son to say that when somebody comes to ask her son, that he doesn’t know. He confirms that he understands that. And she gives further instruction to say... If they ask you about a person, say, ‘I don’t know, I would have to see their face.’”
When Player learned her son was ineligible at KU, she texted Gassnola, “My kid can’t play.” He responded by texting, “This is (really) awful.” Player responded: “So because you didn’t talk to KU, Billy can’t play.”
On Nov. 16, Player asked Gassnola whether his lawyer sent a statement to KU’s lawyers. Gassnola testified that he directed his lawyer to send KU a letter that stated “there was no money given to Billy Preston or the family, therefore he should be able to play.”
When asked if that was true, there were no improprieties related to Preston, Gassnola answered: “Absolutely not. It was not true.”
KU Athletics never publicly mentioned the unearthing of wire payments to Player when discussing Preston’s eligibility case last season.
Self, when speaking on Jan. 20, said that KU had delivered its findings on Preston’s situation to the NCAA just before Christmas.
“Just to be real clear, so fans don’t think that people are at fault, it was a situation where it took some time to get the information to them (the NCAA) in a final package,” Self said at the time. “ ... But then there were follow-up deals, ‘We have more questions. We have more things.’ We were hoping that there could be a resolution to it. We thought we were getting real close.”
Preston never played a regular-season game for KU, announcing that he was signing with a Bosnian pro team in January.
Gassnola testified he and Gatto attended Late Night at the Phog as Adidas ambassadors in October 2016 and later met with Player and Kirby at his room at the Oread Hotel in Lawrence.
“The following morning, Jim and I were on our way to the airport,” Gassnola said, “and I told Jim about my conversation with the ladies — that’s what I referred to them as — and I said — I told Jim what I was going to do, and he said, ‘OK, do what you got to do.’”
When asked what did he understand Gatto to mean, Gassnola said, “To go ahead and take care of the family as I needed.”
During cross-examination Thursday afternoon, the defense asked Gassnola, who during direct examination said he made a $15,000 payment to the family of then-high school junior Deandre Ayton on behalf of Adidas, whether he tried to find permanent housing and a job for Ayton’s mother.
“I tried to help in that regard. I sure did,” said Gassnola, who was not successful.
Gassnola was also asked if Self wanted Ayton, who would attend Arizona, a Nike school, and became the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
“He was the No. 1 player in the country. Everybody recruited him,” Gassnola said.
Asked if he felt he let Self down after Ayton picked Arizona over Kansas, Gassnola said, “I did.”
Gassnola testified he has a “very good relationship” with Self and has known him for more than a decade. Gassnola and his fiancée had dinner with Self and his wife before Self was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Sept. 2017.
“He paid for it,” Gassnola said.
Earlier Thursday, Gassnola testified that Fenny Falmagne, De Sousa’s guardian, was paid $60,000 by a Maryland booster and needed that money paid back so he could attend KU. Falmagne has told The Star that neither he nor De Sousa took money.
“I had to get Silvio’s guy out from under his deal they had with this booster from Maryland, and I told (Gatto) what it was going to cost and what we had to do to get it done,” Gassnola said.
When asked if he paid Falmagne the $20,000, Gassnola responded: “I did not, because of this investigation.” Gassnola also said he never discussed the plan to pay Falmagne with anyone at KU.
During Wednesday’s trial, Jeff Smith, senior director of compliance for the KU athletic department, was asked about De Sousa signing a contract with a pro team in Spain and an agreement with a sports agent. An attorney for the prosecution said KU only allowed De Sousa to play after presenting evidence — KU had hired handwriting experts who could not conclude who signed the documents, according to court transcripts — and obtaining a clearance from the NCAA.
Kansas officials have said they will not comment while legal proceedings are ongoing, referring to a university statement that says “the prosecution has not suggested any wrongdoing by the university or its coaches. We will continue to cooperate as requested throughout the trial.”
Gassnola’s testimony continues in New York on Monday.
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