Federal appeals court upholds 2019 convictions of Christian Dawkins, Merl Code in men's basketball bribery case

NEW YORK -- The convictions of a sports business manager and an amateur basketball coach in a conspiracy to bribe top college coaches to get them to steer NBA-bound athletes to favored handlers were upheld Friday by an appeals court.

The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan affirmed the 2019 convictions of Christian Dawkins and youth basketball coach Merl Code on a single conspiracy count. Dawkins was also convicted of bribery. They were acquitted of some other charges.

The prosecution resulted from a criminal investigation that exposed how financial advisers and business managers paid tens of thousands of dollars to college coaches and athletes' families to steer highly regarded high school players to top colleges, sometimes with the help of apparel makers who signed sponsorship deals with schools.

During the trial, universities were portrayed by prosecutors as victims of greedy financial advisers and coaches while defense lawyers asserted that the schools were complicit in any corruption that occurred in 2016 and 2017.

Circuit Judge William J. Nardini, writing for a three-judge panel, said the judges rejected arguments that the law used to convict the men was unconstitutionally applied and that various rulings about evidence and other matters by the trial judge were erroneous.

"We are unpersuaded by these arguments," Nardini wrote, saying the judges did not agree with arguments that the federal law used to convict the men should be limited as it pertains to the universe of "agents" to be influenced or the business of the federally funded organizations involved.

The 2nd Circuit said Congress purposefully wrote the law broadly to preserve the integrity of organizations that receive federal dollars by outlawing bribery, and it is not the role of courts to interpret it in a restrictive manner.

A lawyer who argued the appeals case on behalf of the men declined comment Friday.

Dawkins, 28, of Atlanta, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison while Code, 47, of Greer, South Carolina, a Clemson point guard in the 1990s who later worked with Nike and Adidas, was sentenced to three months in prison.

Earlier this year, the appeals court upheld the 2018 convictions at a separate trial of Code and Dawkins on similar charges related to payments made to players' families rather than coaches. They were each sentenced to six months in prison for that conviction.

The convictions grew from a prosecution that resulted in 10 arrests, including four former assistant basketball coaches who eventually pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy without a trial and were treated leniently at sentencings.

The second trial of Code and Dawkins featured some surprises, including claims that some bribes were paid to secure NFL-bound athletes at major schools as clients.

Prosecution witness Louis Martin Blazer, a financial adviser, testified he paid football players from $100 to $3,000 to ensure they would eventually hire him while they were at schools including Pittsburgh, Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Northwestern, North Carolina and Alabama. He testified after pleading guilty to stealing from clients, including NFL players, to invest in film and music projects.