Bribery informant Marty Blazer gets probation in fraud case

NEW YORK -- The former Pittsburgh financial adviser caught defrauding his athlete clients and who later guided the FBI into a lengthy investigation of paying bribes in college basketball was sentenced to one year of probation by a federal judge Thursday.

Louis Martin "Marty" Blazer managed to avoid any incarceration for his investment crimes, although he will still have to pay about $1.56 million in restitution to the clients whose money he misappropriated. U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos also imposed a $2.35 million forfeiture judgment.

Blazer's information, cooperation and testimony in the investigation helped the government secure 10 convictions for crimes related to arranging for and paying bribes to college athletes, their relatives or associates, and coaches.

In September 2017, Blazer pleaded guilty to a series of charges, including securities fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and making false statements and documents, which typically carry a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison, but combined could have totaled a maximum 67 years.

Blazer, whose wife accompanied him to the sentencing hearing Thursday, choked up and held back tears when he read from a statement addressing the judge and apologizing to his family, the court and to his former clients.

"I take 100 percent responsibility for every terrible decision I made," he said. "These guys trusted me to protect them from people who would do what I did to them."

In prior court filings, Blazer's attorney Martin Dietz had argued to keep his client out of prison, advocating for a "non-custodial" sentence due to Blazer's cooperation with the government and his otherwise clean record, also pointing out that Blazer, 49, was the primary supporter of his wife and three children, including a teenage daughter whose birthday happened to be Thursday.

Although Blazer's sentencing caps one stage of the exposure of college basketball bribery, his role in providing information about college coaches and others likely is not over. Blazer has been cooperating with the NCAA and has agreed to now provide the organization with information that he previously withheld at the government's request, according to documents filed in court. Upon leaving the courtroom Thursday, Dietz said that cooperation now is going to "ramp up."

Judge Ramos -- who presided over the trial in which Blazer testified last spring where defendants Christian Dawkins and Merl Code were convicted in connection with paying bribes to college coaches -- also used Thursday's hearing to make some general comments about the public's perception of the criminal cases.

"A lot has been written and said about whether it is appropriate to pay college players," Ramos said. Even though there is a movement toward allowing for college athletes to get paid, he said, there were rules in place at the time that "had to be followed" and the defendants' actions also violated federal law.

"To be sure, they were not the worst of crimes," Ramos said, noting they did not involve drugs or violence, and stating that the sentences other defendants received were relatively short; the longest was a sentence Ramos imposed on Dawkins in October 2019 of one year and one day in prison for his conviction in the bribery trial earlier that spring.

Ramos said he believed that Blazer had essentially learned his lesson and would not reoffend, and did not need to be incarcerated. Ramos called Blazer an "unusual cooperator," a point referenced by Blazer's attorney and federal prosecutors who noted that Blazer turned investigators on to the bribery issues in college athletics even before he was charged with his investment crimes.

Blazer's involvement with federal investigators began in 2013 when the Securities and Exchange Commission began to look into his financial dealings. In 2016, Blazer agreed with SEC allegations that he defrauded five clients out of a total $2.35 million, mostly funds that he used to invest in making two movies and a country music venture that never really paid off. Some of those clients were professional athletes, as Blazer specialized in representing sports figures.

In the course of that investigation, Blazer also admitted to paying college athletes at multiple universities to secure as clients when they turned pro, which is a violation of NCAA rules. According to court filings, that's how the idea took hold of having Blazer work with the FBI to dig further into what's often referred to as the underbelly of college athletics -- financial advisers, agents, apparel companies and even coaches using money to bribe athletes or their relatives and handlers to steer them to particular schools, firms or brands.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York filed a letter with the court asking for consideration of Blazer's contributions in deciding his sentence. The letter noted Blazer's cooperation in gathering evidence and testifying at trial, commended his "personal sacrifice" and said that his efforts led to "the biggest and most significant federal investigation and prosecution of corruption in college athletics."

Blazer was also present for a July 2017 meeting in Las Vegas at which two of the main defendants in the case, Dawkins -- an aspiring business manager -- and Code -- a former Adidas consultant -- met with several college basketball coaches and an undercover FBI agent posing as an investor to discuss and in some cases exchange money for the purpose of securing star players. Video and audio recordings from that meeting became key pieces of evidence in the government's case.

Blazer testified last year in the case in which Dawkins and Code were convicted in May 2019 for having bribed assistant coaches to steer their players toward Dawkins' agency and certain financial advisers. Code and Dawkins have appealed those convictions.

In a related October 2018 trial, Dawkins, Code and former Adidas executive James Gatto were convicted of paying bribes to parents and handlers of high-profile recruits to steer the players to schools sponsored by the apparel company. They have appealed those convictions.

The case also resulted in guilty pleas from four former assistant college basketball coaches and three others tied to the alleged bribery schemes.

The NCAA also submitted a letter supportive of Blazer, stating that he "cooperated in the NCAA's investigation by making himself available for numerous interviews" that he assisted the NCAA and the various colleges and also provided "documentary information."

The letter ends by stating that Blazer has agreed to help the NCAA after his Thursday sentencing: "He has additional information that will be of value to the investigations; however, he shared that he held select information at the request of the government and will provide it post-sentencing."