How one man's Hollywood flop set off NCAA basketball's biggest scandal

The federal investigation announced last Sept. 26 in New York, opening the way into NCAA basketball's biggest scandal, started with a small-time financial adviser who'd found himself in big trouble. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

THE BIGGEST SCANDAL to ever rock college basketball traces its beginnings to a low-budget, sci-fi horror flick that tanked at the box office in 2013.

"A Resurrection" starred B-list celebrities Mischa Barton and the late Michael Clarke Duncan and was about a boy named Eli who wanted to avenge his brother's death. Never saw it? Well, not many did. And because of that, the college basketball world has been turned upside down.

As it turns out, a small-time Pittsburgh financial adviser named Marty Blazer helped finance "A Resurrection," using money from some of his clients, including professional athletes. Some of those clients had no idea the money they'd given to Blazer would fund his Hollywood dream.

Blazer's attempt to cover his losses from the film, along with another movie and a country music venture, landed him as the catalyst in an FBI investigation that might actually make a great movie one day, one featuring envelopes stuffed with cash, covert meetings in parking lots and Las Vegas hotel rooms, and coaches in high-profile programs caught on tape scheming to pay top recruits.

The ending to the real-life tale remains unknown, but as of early March, 10 people had been arrested, 10 coaches or athletic department staffers had lost their jobs or been suspended, six players had been suspended or temporarily held out, and the entire NCAA basketball apparatus hung in limbo. The federal investigation also has opened the way for possible NCAA violations at more than three dozen schools, including many of the nation's top-ranked programs, sources with knowledge of the FBI investigation have told ESPN.

"He wasn't a big name. He's going to bring down March Madness?" A sports agent who once worked with Marty Blazer

"That Marty Blazer could bring down the NCAA basketball system is ironic to me. Almost comical," says one sports agent who once worked with Blazer and spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want his name associated with the case. "A multibillion-dollar system, brought down by some nickel-and-dime financial guy in Pittsburgh. He wasn't a big name. He's going to bring down March Madness?"

Blazer's attorney, Martin Dietz, declined to comment when reached by Outside the Lines, and Blazer isn't talking, either. Because of his movie-funding gambit, Blazer agreed in 2016 to settle Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that he defrauded five clients out of a total $2.35 million. He also faces sentencing on criminal charges of securities fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and making false statements and documents. The charges typically carry a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison, but combined could total a maximum 67 years.

DESPITE A FLASHY career of courting professional athletes, Blazer, 48, is described by friends and associates as a simple, family-focused man who never ventured far from western Pennsylvania. He goes by Marty, although his full name is Louis Martin Blazer III. He didn't stray far for college, studying industrial management, finance and economics at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. He passed two licensing exams in 1992 and would spend 12 years working as a financial adviser at a Smith Barney brokerage and investment firm. In 2007, property records show, Blazer and his wife built a two-story home in Clinton, Pennsylvania, tucked into the cul-de-sac of a developing subdivision.

Pittsburgh attorney Anthony Patterson, whose family has been friends with the Blazers since about that time, says Blazer rarely talked about work, his athlete clientele or even sports. "I think he was a sports fan in a different sense. Obviously he was involved, but he wasn't the guy that you'd go over to his house and watch a football game with," Patterson says. "That was never something that we did. ... He knew a lot of the guys and probably represented a lot of them, and I think he watched the games by himself." Hanging out in bars and clubs to woo clients was his job, not representative of his personality, according to an associate who spoke with Outside the Lines only on the condition of anonymity. For a while, Blazer wooed wealthy clients well. In 2008, when he formed a financial services and investment advising company called Blazer Capital Management (BCM) on Pittsburgh's South Side, he brought several pro athlete clients from his time at Smith Barney, according to a former colleague who spoke only the condition of anonymity. The company was promoted as a "premier personal services advisory firm" that catered to pro athletes, entertainers and others with high net worth.

Blazer, who did most of the recruiting and client management, initially drew clients from a smattering of standout Pittsburgh-area high school stars-turned-pros, as well as top players for the University of Pittsburgh. A former colleague at BCM recalls the clientele as a mix of unknown rookies and big-name players spread all over the country -- all in professional football. "All of the clients seemed to really like him," says the former colleague. "He had a certain amount of charisma to be able to do that. ... I never saw an unhappy client."

But there were at least some unhappy clients, even dating to Blazer's work at Smith Barney. Most notable was former 49ers and Jets running back Kevan Barlow. Barlow complained to a regulatory agency in 2011 that Blazer misappropriated $4 million of his money from 2001 to 2009. The dispute was settled in 2012 after the brokerage firm paid Barlow $850,000, even though Blazer had blamed the losses on his former client's spending habits, which he described as reckless, in a statement to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Keeping professional athletes and entertainers in financial check is unlike any other type of investment planning, says Blazer's former BCM colleague. Because professional athletes often come into wealth very quickly and at a young age, they sometimes give advisers like Blazer significant authority over their finances. "My take was always a lot of things would be done on a handshake basis, as in, 'I've got your back, you've got my back, let's move forward,' " the former colleague says.

As a result of that trust, clients would grant Blazer power of attorney to make decisions on their behalf, or they would pre-sign bank authorizations, making it easier and faster to take care of any issues that came up. That sometimes meant assuming clients' risks.

According to court documents, Blazer once signed on as a guarantor on a Mercedes-Benz lease for Southern Mississippi tight end Shawn Nelson weeks before he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. When Nelson defaulted in 2011 -- at the end of his 17-game NFL career -- he and Blazer were on the hook for nearly $100,000. Another time, he co-signed on a $50,000 loan for the rapper Tyga, known as much for his music as for his former relationship with "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" star Kylie Jenner. One investor in BCM, Robert Wilson, had Tyga as a client. Tyga, whose real name is Michael Stevenson, and Blazer were sued in 2013 when the rapper defaulted on the loan.

Athletes and high-profile clients often look for "the next big thing" that could be very lucrative, Blazer's former colleague says: "Nobody wanted to do vanilla. Over time, the ideas keep getting a little more exotic." Blazer had his sights on the silver screen, and he wanted his clients to go along. "He said, 'If I can get them to invest in these movies, and these movies take off, they're going to tell everybody else, 'Hey, we can get you guys in Hollywood,' " the Blazer associate says. "He thought it was sexy."

Blazer's foray into movies began in 2009, after a business partner introduced him to an actor and a producer -- not named in a court record that references the meeting -- pitching an idea for "Mafia the Movie." The producer persuaded Blazer to raise money for that movie, as well as a project called "Sibling," which later became "A Resurrection." As the fundraising demands kept getting bigger, Blazer struggled to draw interest in the project, the associate says.

Blazer started to get desperate.

So, after one NFL client, unnamed in an Securities and Exchange Commission complaint, turned Blazer down in October 2010 to fund one of his films, Blazer took matters into his own hands. He used a copy of his client's signature to authorize five bank transfers totaling $450,000; the money would be moved into an account to make "Mafia the Movie." Blazer also made a $100,000 transfer from the NFL client into an account for "Sibling," according to court records.

It would be about two years before the client realized what had happened and threatened to sue Blazer if he didn't return the $550,000. Blazer returned the money -- by forging another client's signature and abusing his power-of-attorney privileges to transfer $600,000 from that client's accounts, according to records. Blazer used the extra $50,000 taken from the second client to invest in a country music management venture. In January 2013, Blazer took an additional $50,000 of that client's money for the music project.

In total, between October 2010 and January 2013, Blazer took $2.35 million from five clients to invest in movie and music projects, court documents state. According to court documents, Blazer returned just $790,000 to clients he defrauded.

"Mafia the Movie" was never released in theaters. It was retitled "Mafia" and went direct to DVD in 2013. "A Resurrection" was released in March 2013 and bombed, costing an estimated $5 million to make and grossing just $10,730 in the United States, according to IMDB.com.

The site gave the film four stars out of 10. One reviewer wrote that it was a "safe PG-ish film" for fans of the supernatural but not a convincing horror movie: "The suspenseful and dark atmosphere make the film a nice movie to watch with your grandmother or someone who doesn't like other more gory horror films but it is also a film that could have been better in so many ways."

Outside the Lines reached out to several of Blazer's clients and some of their attorneys, but most declined to comment. One, Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung, exchanged a few text messages about his dealings with Blazer but declined to go into detail. "I didn't move money into his movie. He stole it and forged documentation," Okung wrote.

In a May 2016, Blazer was quoted by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as calling the episode a "miscommunication that got out of control" and saying athletes can have a "selective memory" about their financial decisions. But he'd later confess to a judge that he had invested clients' money without their authorization.

IT'S UNCLEAR EXACTLY what triggered the SEC, which regulates the world of investments, brokers and advisers, to start looking into Blazer and his activities in 2013. But about the same time, Blazer's name was popping up in a major amateur-athlete-agent scandal.

Blazer found himself caught up in a North Carolina Secretary of State's office investigation of improper payments to athletes at the University of North Carolina, an investigation that resulted in criminal indictments of former players, agents and others accused of providing money, plane tickets, hotel rooms and other benefits to football players to entice them into signing with particular agents and advisers.

One of those indicted, and currently awaiting trial this spring, is former UNC cornerback Chris Hawkins, who investigators say gave then-current UNC linebacker Robert Quinn $13,700 in cash in 2010. Quinn told investigators the money was in exchange for him agreeing to sign with Blazer and an NFL agent. Investigators obtained records of 356 phone calls, 398 text messages and other correspondence between Hawkins and Blazer that included documentation of paying student-athletes, complete with attached spreadsheets.

A search warrant affidavit states that investigators had probable cause to believe Blazer and Hawkins were engaged in an "ongoing conspiracy to recruit" UNC student-athletes. Former UNC receiver Greg Little -- for whom Blazer would co-sign on a $10,000 loan in 2011, only to be sued when Little defaulted -- also admitted to North Carolina investigators in 2013 that he received payments from Blazer while Little was still an athlete at North Carolina.

Hawkins and five other people, including a former academic tutor who bought a plane ticket and delivered packages for Little, were criminally indicted under North Carolina's athlete agent inducement law, which makes it a felony to provide money, gifts or other items of value to college athletes to lure them into contracts with agents.

Blazer wasn't among those charged, despite his being the money and the motivation behind Hawkins, who acted as his runner, according to court documents. In recent interviews with Outside the Lines, Orange County (North Carolina) District Attorney Jim Woodall and a spokesman for the North Carolina Secretary of State's Office declined to say why. Officials with the district attorney's office indicated they didn't know about the federal investigation into Blazer at the time.

IN JULY 2013, SEC examiners started inspecting Blazer's investment firm records. When they confronted him with suspicious transactions, Blazer initially tried to lie his way out, according to the SEC complaint. He even faked documents to make the transfers look legitimate, but the feds weren't fooled.

At some point in his descent, Blazer realized federal investigators had him. They had sources. They had records. They had a money trail. They had victims. They had motive. And they would have had the North Carolina evidence as well. Blazer was facing multiple possible federal charges and sentences that could total almost a lifetime in prison.

But Blazer had an idea: What if he could help the government expose widespread bribery in college sports? There was interest from the feds, but also uncertainty, according to an associate of Blazer's who spoke to Outside the Lines only on the condition of anonymity. As such, and to make sure agents were not being led down a rabbit hole, Blazer initially had to foot the bill, paying for his own travel and putting up his own cash.

"Marty just wanted to make that first payment. Once they took that money, he had them." Blazer associate

"Marty's goal was to do whatever he could to help himself. He wanted this web to get bigger and bigger and bigger," the associate says. "Marty just wanted to make that first payment. Once they took that money, he had them."

It's unclear why Blazer proposed going after college basketball, when most of his experience had been with football players. It could have been because, at the time, his name was already associated in college football circles with the ongoing North Carolina investigation.

Court documents indicate that Blazer began cooperating with federal investigators in November 2014 and started to cast some bait, talking to people he knew about wanting to bribe coaches to help him secure clients. From March 2016 through last summer, he was a busy man, flying or driving across the country -- Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, South Carolina, New Jersey, West Virginia, Alabama -- to meet with coaches, parents, players, FBI agents and, eventually, executives with Adidas.

Blazer didn't like all the travel and time away from home while he was at the beck and call of the FBI, says one of his associates. He'd be on the sideline, watching his teenage son playing soccer, when his phone would ring. "It was getting to the point where agents were calling, 'We need you here. We need you here. We need you here,' and he didn't want to miss any of his soccer games," the associate said. At the same time, "I think part of him loved it. I think he enjoyed it."

At some point, Blazer connected with Rashan Michel, a former college and NBA referee who ran a successful custom-suit business in Atlanta. Michel ended up as the nexus of Blazer's network, which started to grow quickly in 2016. Michel had introduced him to then-Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person, as well as Christian Dawkins, a runner who recruited athletes for agents. Each of those meetings would take Blazer on separate but similar paths to even more coaches and connections.

Over roughly 18 months detailed in court documents, Blazer met repeatedly with coaches, players, and parents, often carrying with him envelopes of cash. The first $5,000 given to Person came from a handoff in a restaurant parking lot near Auburn's campus. The payments were to be disguised as a $50,000 "loan" to be "paid off" a little each time Person delivered a player to Blazer.

Some of Blazer's contacts made haphazard attempts to shield their activities, according to the court documents. Person and Blazer exchanged text messages about transferring more money, according to court documents. But in a follow-up call to discuss meeting a player and his mother, Person asked Blazer not to reference their plans in text messages anymore.

At a meeting Person arranged for Blazer to meet a player, the coach told the player that Blazer would get him a separate telephone, and cautioned against discussing the arrangement with anyone other than his mom.

"Don't share with any of the teammates. That's very important, 'cause this is a violation ... of rules. But this is how the NBA players get it done. They get early relationships, and they form partnerships, they form trust," Person said, according to court documents.

Blazer found another willing conspirator in former Oklahoma State associate head coach Lamont Evans, according to court documents. Blazer's payments to Evans began in April 2016, around the same time Evans left South Carolina for Oklahoma State, according to documents. The payments continued for several months and, in the end, totaled $22,000 -- plus two pair of $300 headphones Evans specifically requested.

Once, in introducing Blazer to a player, the coach made it seem as though he and Blazer had been good friends. Evans, according to court documents, told the player that meeting Blazer is "going to benefit you ... You just stay the course, play the game and you'll be fine." As soon as the player left, Blazer gave Evans $2,000.

Court records indicate a similar scheme evolved with Arizona assistant coach Emanuel "Book" Richardson, who allegedly took about $20,000 in bribes. But Blazer wasn't as involved in those transactions as his role diminished, and undercover agents became more involved with Dawkins and Blazer's former business partner Munish Sood, who had his own investment firm and had founded a bank in New Jersey.

Sood and Dawkins discussed forming their own agency with help from Blazer's financial backer, who was actually the undercover agent that at least some of Blazer's unwitting partners assumed to be mafia-connected. Those talks led to a June 6, 2017, meeting on a yacht docked near Manhattan, with Dawkins, Sood, Blazer and three undercover agents discussing how much it would cost to target a specific list of elite-level coaches that Dawkins had compiled and suggested were open to bribes. "If you're gonna fund those kind of guys, man, I mean like we'd be running college basketball," Dawkins said, according to the complaint. Dawkins later suggested to one of the undercover agents that the alleged conspirators attend the NBA summer league event in Las Vegas, where they could meet with several coaches through the assistance of Adidas executive Merl Code. On July 27, 2017, Blazer, Dawkins, an undercover agent and AAU basketball director Jonathan Brad Augustine set up shop in a Las Vegas hotel room where the FBI had installed video and audio recording devices.

They met with an assistant coach from Louisville and engaged in a now well-known dialogue about then-head coach Rick Pitino's ability to influence the money coming from Adidas to student-athletes. Augustine, initially accused of facilitating payments to players before charges against him were dropped in February, was recorded saying that "no one swings a bigger dick" at Adidas than Pitino. A meeting two days later in Las Vegas would end up netting USC assistant coach Tony Bland, who allegedly took an envelope with $13,000 in cash upon leaving.

There would be further calls, further cash paid and further meetings with parents and players, with promised payments now exceeding $100,000 and involving Code, as well as Adidas' head of global marketing for basketball, James Gatto. But the further the investigation went, the less it involved Blazer.

Blazer had served his purpose as an informant and gatekeeper, and now the FBI agents were taking over. He was left to sit and wait, because despite having worked alongside the undercover agents for months, Blazer still wasn't on their team and wouldn't be getting any further official updates on the case or where it was headed.

Blazer had led the FBI to Dawkins, and Dawkins in turn would pave a path to his former employer, ASM Sports, led by now former agent Andy Miller. The FBI raided ASM's offices last fall, seizing Miller's computer. Sources have told ESPN that evidence obtained via Miller and Dawkins could implicate dozens of the nation's top programs and coaches in a scandal to rival any in NCAA history.

Throughout the sting operation, as Blazer met with coaches, parents and players at the FBI's behest, no one ever asked about his past transgressions -- even though a simple online search in summer 2016 would have revealed a trove of trouble. If only they'd looked, anyone could have seen his connection to the payments to North Carolina student-athletes or his civil settlement with the SEC over misappropriation of client money. One story written about Blazer ended by noting that his license as a financial adviser expired in 2012.

But for all their talk about being careful in text messages, warning players to keep their mouths shut, buying burner phones, wiring money transfers into coaches' wives accounts and using fake names, or passing bribe money through a charity, either no one bothered to look or they didn't care they were dealing with a guy who had federal regulators and prosecutors breathing down his neck. One source who spoke to Outside the Lines on the condition of anonymity described the attitude of the coaches with a horror movie reference: "They were much like the teenagers in the cabin in the woods agreeing to let the drifter stay with them."

Ohio University professor B. David Ridpath, a leading voice for ethics and integrity in college sports, says he wouldn't be surprised of coaches' willingness to engage Blazer even if they knew of his past. "It's gotten so dirty," Ridpath says. "If they saw him as a person who could get from point A to point B -- whether it's getting a player or transferring the money -- if he's an asset in that transaction, I honestly think people would deal with Osama bin Laden if he's the one that they thought would get this done."

Coaches thought that the, "worst-case scenario is that the NCAA comes in and smacks us around a little bit," Blazer's associate said. "No one thought this would involve the FBI."

SHORTLY BEFORE NOON on Sept. 15, 2017, a mostly sunny Friday in New York City, Marty Blazer walked into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick along with Dietz, his attorney from Pittsburgh. He told the judge he was ready to plead guilty to the five counts against him: securities fraud, aggravated identity theft, making false statements and documents and two counts of wire fraud, as well as agreeing to pay restitution to his clients.

Judge Broderick informed Blazer that even though he had a cooperation agreement with the government for reduced punishment, he would decide final sentencing. "Now even if your sentence is different from what your lawyer or anyone else has told you it might be ... you'll be bound by your guilty plea and I will not allow you to withdraw your guilty plea. Do you understand that?" Broderick asked.

"I understand that, your honor," Blazer replied.

Blazer entered his plea and offered a short description of his crimes. He admitted that he'd "invested funds from a number of clients into various ventures, two movies and a music collaboration, without their authorization." Of his role in the North Carolina scandal, he confessed having "made various payments to college athletes while they were student-athletes to pursue them to hire me as their investment adviser when they finished their college athletic careers." Blazer continued. "Had these payments been known to the NCAA or to the universities that the players attended, the players would likely lose their NCAA eligibility and the school would likely face NCAA discipline."

At that point, Blazer started to cry.

"Sorry about that, your Honor."

Judge Broderick asked Dietz, "Do you know of a valid defense that would prevail at trial or do you know of any reason why your client should not be permitted to plead guilty?" The attorney replied, "The answer to both of those questions is no, your honor."

Before it was over, the prosecuting attorney asked the judge if he could insert a specific question: Whether Blazer knew that making payments to college athletes was "potentially opening up the university to financial consequences levied by the NCAA," to which Blazer said he did. The judge set the date on which they'd address the status of Blazer's case for this Friday -- right at the start of March Madness.

The proceedings were sealed and not released until Sept. 26, in conjunction with the complaints filed against the 10 individuals: coaches Person, Bland, Richardson and Evans; Adidas executives Gatto and Code; AAU coach Augustine; investment adviser Sood; suit maker Michel, and agent runner Dawkins, whose conversations with Blazer and each other filled hundreds of hours of recordings. Blazer wasn't mentioned by name in the three complaints filed against the 10 defendants, instead referred to as CW-1 for "cooperating witness," but with the concurrent release of his own indictment and plea and federal sources who connected the dots for media, his identity was quickly revealed.

The daily calls and text messages to Blazer's phone from coaches offering players and asking for payments stopped cold. His phone filled up with messages and calls from reporters, but Blazer mostly stayed quiet.

MARTY BLAZER IS still trying to maintain a low profile. Photos of him are rare, and the only one Outside the Lines could find -- from a post on a relative's Facebook page -- shows Blazer leaning into his wife and smiling. His associate says Blazer is worried about how he's going to maintain his family's lifestyle while serving out whatever punishment he gets handed in the criminal case and making good on roughly $2 million he agreed to pay to settle the civil case. Professionally, he doesn't have much to offer other than his story, and, according to some people close to him, he believes that's worth something.

"He believes he has some value to help people down the road," the associate said, noting that he has expressed an interest in working with groups -- the NCAA, even -- that are trying to stem corruption in college sports.

On Sept. 27, after the arrests were made and the complaints filed, Blazer sent an email to Ridpath. The Ohio professor said he thought it was a prank at first, but further exchanges led him to believe the correspondence was legitimately from Blazer. He read one of the emails: "I'm interested in what you're doing with regards to reform. I really want to speak with you at some point in time. Please let me know if you're interested. I believe I can bring a different perspective to your efforts." Ridpath says Blazer has followed up by saying he needs to wait until the "dust settles" on the current cases before moving forward.

"I'd love to hear from him and have him tell me exactly how the sausage was made," Ridpath says. "It's usually people who know the inner workings who help you fix those things, so Marty could actually be a major cog in helping to fix some major problems, but I've got to see how serious he is."

In the best-case scenario, Ridpath says, Blazer could be someone like Frank Abagnale, the teenage con artist-turned-FBI-fraud-consultant, whose life story was, incidentally, made into the Tom Hanks/Leonardo DiCaprio film "Catch Me If You Can."