Bush Inquiry Hits an Obstacle

NCAA and Pacific 10 investigation faces new hurdles because of planned legal action by the founders of New Era against the family.

May 11, 2006|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

Soon after an alleged business relationship between Reggie Bush's family and a fledgling sports marketer recently was revealed, the Pacific 10 Conference and NCAA began looking into the matter.

Investigators traveled to San Diego to meet with at least one of the principals involved, and officials spoke of more interviews to come.

But since then, the inquest has been complicated by an unusual circumstance.

Because founders of the sports marketing company plan to file a civil suit against Bush and his family, both sides have been wary of giving investigators information that could be used in court.

"I've got a lawsuit I have to deal with," Brian Watkins, the attorney for New Era Sports & Entertainment, said recently. "I can't show all my cards."

Anything said to investigators might reach opposing attorneys orally or by way of a subsequent NCAA report.

David Cornwell, a lawyer for Bush and his family, expressed concern over this issue at the recent NFL draft when he said: "I'm not going to give the other side free discovery."

Investigators want to know if Bush's parents -- stepfather LaMar Griffin and mother Denise Griffin -- received improper benefits from New Era while their son was playing for USC.

From spring 2005 until recently, the Griffins lived in a San Diego-area house owned by New Era founder Michael Michaels and, according to Watkins, failed to pay rent. Watkins also alleges the company gave the family tens of thousands in cash disbursements.

New Era hoped to land Bush as its first big client, but he chose other representation and the business venture fizzled.

Bush has repeatedly said his family did nothing wrong. The Griffins have declined to comment. Attorney Cornwell has declined to address the allegations specifically, instead claiming that New Era and an associated sports agent, David Caravantes, are trying to extort money.

If NCAA and Pac-10 investigators determine a violation occurred, Bush might be ruled retroactively ineligible, his Heisman Trophy might be in jeopardy, and USC might have to forfeit victories.

But the prospect of civil litigation could make getting at the facts more difficult.

Investigators reportedly spoke with Caravantes last week. Ron Barker, the Pac-10's associate commissioner for enforcement, could not be reached for comment on this article but previously he has talked about the challenge of arranging other interviews.

Athletic investigations hampered by concurrent legal cases are "not frequent, but it's not unprecedented," said Steve Morgan, an attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King of Overland Park, Kan., which represents college programs under scrutiny.

In April 2004, a woman filed a civil suit in which she claimed to have transferred $6,000 from Ohio State basketball coaches to a foreign recruit. The NCAA began investigating, but it wasn't until this year that penalties were imposed.

Erik Christianson, an NCAA spokesman, said in a statement that investigators must be "more flexible" in such situations, but that a parallel legal proceeding can also be helpful.

"In certain cases, we may decide to pause our investigation pending the outcome of a civil or criminal investigation, which can be beneficial to us because we can gain access to information from those proceedings that we would otherwise not be able to obtain," the statement said.

The Bush case is complicated anyway. Because the running back is now in the NFL, neither he nor his family is compelled to cooperate. Also, one of the New Era founders, Lloyd Lake, is in federal prison on an unrelated criminal conviction.

Watkins said he would continue to seek an arrangement by which Michaels and Lake can be interviewed, but the situation remains tricky.

The attorney said of investigators: "They've never had anything like this before."

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