Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend discussed the financial requests of a recruit’s family during a phone call with one of the defendants in the Adidas college basketball corruption trial, according to a defense argument made in court Tuesday.
Mark C. Moore, an attorney for former Adidas employee Merl Code, tried unsuccessfully to get the phone call entered into evidence but discussed it with Judge Lewis A. Kaplan while the jury was not present in the federal courtroom in Manhattan.
The phone call concerns the family of Zion Williamson. Moore told Kaplan “In this call between Mr. Code and Mr. Townsend, Mr. Townsend says ... ‘Hey, but between me and you, you know, he asked about some stuff. You know? And I said, well, we’ll talk about that you decide.’
“And then Mr. Code says: ‘I know what he’s asking for.’ ... ‘He’s asking for opportunities from an occupational prospective. He’s asking for money in the pocket. And he’s asking for housing for him and the family.’
“And they go on to talk. And Mr. Townsend says: ‘so, I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way. Because if that’s what it takes to get him for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.’”
Moore then told Kaplan of prior testimony by government witness Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola, a former Adidas consultant.
“Mr. Gassnola testified that he did not believe that Townsend knew anything about payment to players or coach (Bill) Self knew anything about payment to players,” Moore said, “and that wasn’t part of his understanding when he made payments to players in Kansas.
“Well, my client’s understanding is different. My client’s understanding is that the coaches want these payments to be done. This call references a discussion with Kurt Townsend at Kansas, which confirms my client’s belief.”
Kaplan, in denying the tape into evidence, said the call occurred after the time period of the allegations contained in the indictment.
Townsend was not available for comment.
Williamson was a top-five recruit in the Class of 2018 who picked Duke over Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. He’s a freshman for the Blue Devils this season. Nike sponsors all of those schools except KU.
James Gatto, a former Adidas executive, Code and another defendant are accused of wire fraud conspiracy by paying the families of top basketball recruits, which would render them ineligible under NCAA rules and defraud the schools, including Kansas. The defense doesn’t contest payments were made, but is arguing the prosecution hasn’t proven that the universities were victims of the payment schemes.
The defense also revealed Tuesday that a five-minute phone call between Gatto and KU coach Bill Self on Aug. 31, 2017 during a time of court-authorized wiretap was not recorded because of “technical issues.” The same problem was reported for another conversation between agent Christian Dawkins, the third defendant in the case, and Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson from Sept. 28, 2017.
Self, when asked at last week’s KU basketball media day for comment about the federal trial, said: “No I don’t have any response. I can’t talk about that. I’m not meaning to be opaque about this at all. I just feel like … our stance is still the same. We’ll comment when the time is appropriate. The appropriate time is when this is done and that’ll certainly be the case. I’m not going to make comments day to day on what has been said because we’ll know obviously in the next couple weeks what actually this is all about.”
Last week, KU associate athletic director Jim Marchiony said KU Athletics would continue to defer all comment about the federal trial to KU director of strategic communications Joe Monaco. When contacted this week, Monaco referred to a previous KU statement: “It is not appropriate for the university to comment while legal proceedings are ongoing. As we have said all along, the prosecution has not suggested any wrongdoing by the university or its coaches. We will continue to cooperate as requested throughout the trial.”
Also Tuesday, the defense also tried to enter into evidence a text message string between Townsend and Gatto the day Kansas won the 2017 Big 12 championship, which tied UCLA’s record of 13 consecutive conference titles.
“Mr. Townsend is reaching out to Mr. Gatto and saying thanks for all you’ve done for us. And, you know, of course Mr. Gatto says, thank you, or congrats,” said Casey E. Donnelly, an attorney for Gatto. “But in our view this is probative of the fact that Mr. Gatto believed he was helping and doing a positive thing when he arranged or approved a payment to Kansas players.”
The prosecution replied that Silvio De Sousa and Billy Preston, the two KU players whose families were said to have received money from Gassnola, were not on the 2016-17 Jayhawks roster.
Before the defense request was denied, Donnelly said: “We would still argue that this is relevant evidence that the Kansas coaches believed that Mr. Gatto was helping them and that they appreciated that help in whichever form it took.”
The defense also attempted to add as evidence photos of De Sousa wearing an Angola national team uniform in 2017 with a Nike Swoosh on it. In doing so, the defense was attempting to disprove Gassnola’s assertion that his conversations with Self and Townsend regarding Fenny Falmagne, De Sousa’s guardian, were centered only around getting Adidas uniforms for the Angola team. Kaplan denied the defense’s request.
LSU coach Will Wade is the subject of another phone call the defense tried to enter into evidence. On that call, Wade tells Dawkins “that he can get him what he needs, meaning money, if a high school player in Florida, Balsa Koprivica, agrees to play for LSU,” Donnelly argued.
”We think is indicative of — we think it’s relevant to Mr. Dawkins’ intent and his belief that he was not hurting these universities, but in fact, based on his understanding of Division I coaches, was giving them what they wanted.”
Koprivica is a Class of 2019 recruit from Serbia who plays at Montverde Academy in Florida.
Donnelly says the call starts with Dawkins telling Wade “so you said to me in Atlanta there was a 2019 kid I wanted to recruit, they can get him to LSU, you would have funded. Would you want Balsa?
“Then Mr. Wade says: ‘Oh, the big kid?’ Because Balsa is a real big, tall kid. And Christian confirms. Then Coach Wade says, and excuse my language: ‘OK. But there’s other (expletive) involved in it.’ Then he says, ‘I have got to shut my door.’”
Before Kaplan denied the call entered into evidence, Steven A. Haney, Dawkins’ attorney said: “This is evidence ... where the head basketball coach — not a low-level assistant — the head basketball coach of a major university is actually talking with my client about the very things that this case is about.”
The prosecution has rested its case. All three defendants elected not to testify and the jury will hear closing arguments Wednesday.
The Star’s Jesse Newell contributed to this report. Follow @AdamZagoria on Twitter.