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Bush Involvement Alleged

Heisman winner's stepfather was part of fledgling sports agency, and player knew, its lawyer says.

April 28, 2006|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

While Reggie Bush played his way to a Heisman Trophy last season, his family was living in a house owned by an aspiring sports marketer without paying rent, a lawyer for the marketer said Thursday evening.

The attorney, representing New Era Sports & Entertainment, said that Bush's stepfather, LaMar Griffin, was also a founding member of the company and promised to repay what he owed in back rent through money earned after his son signed with an NFL team.

"Originally there was a rental agreement, but they never paid a dime," attorney Brian Watkins said. "It was always, 'Don't worry, we'll pay you ... you can take it out of our profits."

Watkins claimed that Bush, when made aware of the situation, also promised to repay the debt when he turned professional. Bush is expected to be the top pick in Saturday's NFL draft.

Neither Bush nor his parents -- LaMar and Denise Griffin -- could be reached for comment Thursday night.

At the same time that Watkins was making his claims, and announcing New Era's intention to file a $3-million lawsuit against the Griffins, a report on ESPN.com painted a very different picture of the situation.

Quoting anonymous sources, the website said the NFL Players Assn. and NFL Security had concluded that New Era and an affiliated sports agent tried to extort $3.2 million from Bush after the star tailback ultimately chose other representation.

NFL and NFL Players Assn. executives could not be reached for comment late Thursday night.

Earlier in the day, Bush reiterated that he and his family would be cleared of any wrongdoing.

"I'm confident and I know what the truth is," he said at a pre-NFL draft appearance in New York. "I know for a fact that everything is fine and this is all blown out of proportion and there's more to the story than is being told right now."

The Pacific 10 Conference and the NCAA are looking into whether the Griffins paid fair-market rent for the home. If not, it could be a violation of NCAA rules and Bush could be deemed retroactively ineligible.

The USC football team also could be forced to forfeit victories from last season, even if the university was unaware of any violation.

According to Watkins, the scenario began when Griffin approached longtime friend Lloyd Lake in the fall of 2004 -- Bush's sophomore season -- with an idea to form a sports management business.

The two then joined with another man, Michael Michaels, to form New Era.

Because Michaels is a member of the Sycuan Indian tribe and works for the tribe's development corporation, they approached the tribal council seeking to gather more investments.

This week, a tribe spokesman confirmed that Griffin had visited the reservation at a time when the proposal was being discussed. The tribe ultimately decided not to become involved with New Era.

Around then, Watkins said, "LaMar and Denise started asking for money. They had some financial problems and couldn't focus on building the business."

The Griffins were living in a spacious house in Spring Valley, near San Diego, that Michaels purchased for $757,500 in March 2005.

Mike Ornstein, Bush's marketing representative, said Wednesday that the Griffins had been having money problems and that Michaels offered to let them live there for an arranged payment.

At one point, San Diego-based sports agent David Caravantes become part of the business, with the idea that while New Era marketed Bush, Caravantes would represent him.

But Bush chose other representation and, this year, Lake -- who had been convicted of a drug-related charge -- was returned to prison for violation of his probation.

According to the ESPN.com report, Caravantes then threatened to reveal embarrassing personal information about the family unless they paid the $3.2 million. Caravantes did not return calls from The Times.

Both sides agree that the family recently moved out of the Spring Valley home.

Bush said his parents left because they found another place to live. Watkins, who denies any claims of extortion, said he served an eviction notice on the family.

Watkins said he has been in negotiations with Bush's attorney, David Cornwell, and Cornwell had offered a six-figure settlement but that the two sides did not reach an agreement. Cornwell could not be reach late Thursday.

Watkins said the planned $3-million lawsuit would cover $300,000 that Michaels and Lake put into the business, plus punitive damages.

USC Coach Pete Carroll, reached late Thursday night, said: "I don't know the details of it, so I have no comment about it."

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