Twist in FBI hoops case could put Sean Miller back in hot water

Dan Wetzel
Sean Miller may yet have to testify in court in the college basketball hoops scandal. (Getty Images)

NEW YORK – The name came up unexpectedly — “Sean Miller.”

It was so unexpected that the moment it was uttered on an FBI-secretly recorded video of a business meeting that was played Wednesday in federal court, the head of Judge Edgardo Ramos lifted up.

The judge’s movement was slight, but it was noticeable and there is even a chance – slight perhaps, but still a chance – that it will serve as a significant development for the Arizona basketball coach and the second federal fraud trial that is underway here at the Moynihan Courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

Last Friday, Ramos had ruled that Miller would not be forced to appear here as a defense witness. Ramos agreed with a prosecution argument that Miller’s testimony would be “irrelevant” to the case at hand. The defense wanted to call Miller to show Christian Dawkins, one of two defendants on trial, did not discuss bribing him even when the two talked about what the defense claimed were NCAA-prohibited payments to Wildcat players.

Avoiding the witness stand was a huge victory for Miller, who certainly wanted no part of what would be a blistering direct examination by defense attorneys concerning potential recruiting violations that could end his career.

As such, it stood to reason that the words “Sean” and “Miller” would not be heard here this week.

Yet now federal prosecutors were playing a video where Dawkins discusses just those kinds of possible violations. It even included Dawkins’ belief that Miller was directly paying the family of Deandre Ayton but was willing to have Dawkins take over such payments, and allow Dawkins to steer the future No. 1 NBA draft pick to Dawkins’ preferred sports agent and financial planner.

Should Sean Miller be worried?

The government bringing up not just Miller, but Dawkins’ retelling conversations with Miller about payments to recruits and players, was enough for Dawkins’ attorney, Steve Haney, to promise to file a motion Thursday morning asking Ramos to “reconsider” the decision to prevent the defense from calling Miller to the stand.

“The government did raise the issue on direct,” Haney told Yahoo Sports.

Whether that works or not remains to be seen.

Even if it doesn’t cause Miller to take the stand and the subpoena remains squashed, the tape contained some damning comments about Miller.

On the tape, Dawkins, a would-be basketball middleman charged with bribing assistant coaches, tells a group of business partners about a supposed conversation he recently had with Miller concerning Ayton, then the top recruit in America.

“He’s like, ‘Listen, I’m taking care of everything myself [in the recruitment of Ayton],’” Dawkins said. “‘I want to bring you in. I’ll turn everything over to you.’”

Government witness Marty Blazer, a former financial planner working undercover for the feds, then testified that he took Dawkins’ comments to mean that Miller “had been taking care of payments for Deandre Ayton.”

Earlier in the conversation played on the video, Dawkins discussed how he could call Miller up and discuss recruiting — both Arizona’s for players and Dawkins’ for future NBA clients — honestly, as if Miller was still an assistant coach.

“Arizona is like, Sean Miller has to know everything that goes on,” Dawkins said. “ … I can call Sean and have a conversation, like, ‘This is what is needed to be done.’”

Dawkins said Miller was actually too open about things.

“He’ll talk on the phone about stuff he shouldn’t talk on the phone about,” Dawkins said.

Blazer, under government questioning, said he took that to mean, “Sean Miller was talking about inappropriate things in recruiting players, like paying them.”

The Dawkins quotes come via a recording of a business meeting on a yacht floating just off New York’s Battery Park. It is not under-oath testimony. However, the defense has asserted those conversations have occurred and seek not just Miller’s testimony, but the playing of additional wire-tapped conversations between Miller and Dawkins, just the kind of “stuff he shouldn’t talk on the phone about.”

Miller, for his part, has long denied any wrongdoing and stated back in 2018 that he “never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona.”

The most intriguing part was Dawkins claiming that Miller was taking care of Ayton but presumably was willing to allow Dawkins to take over the payments and then land the player.

“This is with a dude that could be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Dawkins said.

It could be germane to the defense because it could show a state of mind that Dawkins was under and how he may have considered working with college coaches to recruit future clients as a partnership, not a bribe.

Rick Pitino should be smiling

While Miller was particularly open about things, this wasn’t wholly unusual, according to Dawkins, who said most head coaches are aware of recruiting tactics of assistant coaches which, Dawkins said, are rarely in compliance with the NCAA rulebook.

One exception, he said, was former Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who is the only major head coach fired as a result of this scandal. Pitino has long contended he had no idea Dawkins and others had paid one of his recruits.

“Rick Pitino may be the only person who doesn’t know what’s going on,” Dawkins said on the tape. “Like, Rick has no clue what’s going on at his school. But most bigger guys, they know.”

Blazer, who has pled guilty to defrauding and cheating investors, spent the entire day on the witness stand as the prosecution ran through recorded phone calls and meetings he had with Dawkins, co-defendant Merl Code, then South Carolina assistant coach Lamont Evans and two undercover FBI agents.

A plan was repeatedly discussed that centered on paying assistant college coaches money (sometimes monthly stipends of a few thousand dollars) that they could use to pay top high school recruits and their families and then, in turn, steer those players to Dawkins et al. when they became NBA draft picks.

Evans, who has pleaded guilty in this case, was paid thousands over the course of nearly two years while working at South Carolina and Oklahoma State.

It was also detailed on Wednesday that Arizona assistant Book Richardson received a $5,000 payout in a New York hotel room to help with NBA-bound Wildcat players.

Richardson has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

His former boss, Miller, has never been charged and is still employed in Tucson. As of last week, it appeared he might slip past this trial with little to no damage. That began to change on Wednesday, and it might reopen an entire ruling that seemed to spare him from taking the stand.

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