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Compton school police open fraud probe against fired basketball coach

A detective says he will investigate whether Russell Otis, who is facing other criminal charges, submitted phony receipts to get $5,100 in travel reimbursement from the district.

September 20, 2009|Stuart Pfeifer and Lance Pugmire

Compton Unified School District police will investigate whether former Dominguez High School basketball coach Russell Otis submitted fraudulent receipts to obtain $5,100 in travel reimbursement from the district, a police detective said.

The investigation is in response to an article in Saturday's Times that said Otis submitted travel invoices bearing the letterhead of a property management firm called Emory G Group to obtain reimbursement for airfare and hotel costs. Otis said the expenses were from trips his team took to Las Vegas, Florida and Indianapolis.

A lawyer for Emory G Group's owner told The Times that the company is not involved in the travel business and did not generate the invoices. Emory G Group is Otis' former landlord, said the lawyer, Leonardo Starke.

Tuan Le, a Compton schools police detective, said Saturday that he would investigate the reimbursement and intended to contact Starke, who was quoted in The Times as saying that the receipts "were not legitimate receipts of the Emory G Group." A lawyer for Otis has acknowledged that the former coach may not have paid for travel through the property management firm, but that Otis did incur the expenses on the basketball team's behalf and was entitled to the $5,100.

Otis, 47, was one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in California history, winning five state championships during 20 years at the Compton school. Dozens of his players received college scholarships, and four went on to the National Basketball Assn. In 2000, USA Today named Otis as high school basketball coach of the year.

He was fired in May after the Los Angeles County district attorney's office charged him with offering to pay one of his players for sex and with stealing $15,000 in Nike Inc. sponsorship money intended for his team.

Otis has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is appealing his termination.

Le said that depending on what his investigation finds, the district attorney's office could file additional charges against Otis. Another option would be to use the Emory G Group receipts to show a pattern of conduct by Otis to support the charge related to the Nike money, Le said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Angela Brunson, who is prosecuting Otis, declined to comment.

Otis is charged with grand theft and forgery for allegedly using a fabricated letter of authorization from former Dominguez High Principal Garry Roberson to deposit the Nike check in his personal bank account. Roberson testified at a preliminary hearing that the signature on the letter was not his.

Otis maintains that he had the principal's permission to deposit the check, and his lawyer, Leonard Levine, has said that Otis can prove he spent "nearly every dollar" on the team.

Levine could not be reached Saturday for comment on the Emory G Group receipts and the school police investigation. Previously, he said it was irrelevant whether Otis incurred the travel expenses through the firm.

"Who cares what the name is on that?" Levine said. "All that matters is he spent the money on that team."

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

lance.pugmore@latimes.com

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