In the hours after his arrest a year ago on charges that he fixed college basketball games while at the University of San Diego, Brandon Johnson told federal agents he was informed of the point spreads, received money after games and solicited a former teammate to potentially participate in the scheme.
But USD’s all-time leading scorer insisted, tearfully at times, that he never actually altered a game.
“I didn’t go in no game to throw it,” Johnson told two FBI agents in an interview that lasted more than an hour. “I flat didn’t throw any game. … When that game started till that game ends, nobody is in my head — no bet, nothing.”
Johnson’s interview in Houston with San Diego-based special agents Nicholas Cheviron and Gregory Houska was videotaped, and U-T San Diego obtained a transcript of it.
Little has happened in the case since the indictment was announced last April, as defense attorneys, federal prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia struggle to coordinate their calendars while sifting through tens of thousands of pages of evidence. A protective order in the case also precludes either side from disclosing government evidence not in the public record.
During the FBI questioning, Johnson named only one other defendant — former USD assistant coach Thaddeus “T.J.” Brown — but the interview provides new insight into the government’s case and how the alleged game-fixing scheme might have operated.
“Even if you take everything Brandon says as gospel,” said Thomas Matthews, Brown’s attorney, “he’s adamant throughout that interview — no matter how much pressure they put on him, no matter how many words the agents try to put in his mouth — that he never fixed or threw a game. None of this establishes a crime.”
Oliver Cleary, Johnson’s court-appointed attorney, did not return several messages. Representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and USD all declined comment.
Cleary filed a motion this year to suppress Johnson’s post-arrest statements, arguing that his Miranda rights were not properly administered before he was interviewed.
The government’s response said that Johnson was advised orally of his rights and signed a written waiver. That waiver, along with an audio copy of the interview, were included as exhibits.
How the case unfolds
Johnson, 25, was arrested at 7:35 a.m. April 9, 2011, at his home in the Houston area and taken to the FBI offices, where agents Cheviron and Houska questioned him. Cheviron describes himself in court records as being “involved with this investigation from the outset.”
That was a Saturday. Two days later, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy held a news conference in San Diego announcing the indictment of 10 people for distributing marijuana, operating an illegal sports gambling ring and fixing college basketball games.
Three of the defendants had ties to USD’s basketball program: Johnson, Brown and former player Brandon Dowdy, who finished his career at the University of California Riverside.
In a recent court filing, federal prosecutors said that three of the defendants — Steve Goria, Paul Thweni and Richard Garmo — “had gained access to fixing games at USD by utilizing Brown, who had previously been an assistant coach with the USD basketball program.”
“Goria, Thweni and Garmo learned through Brown that Johnson, the starting point guard at USD, was willing to influence the outcome of games in exchange for money,” the prosecutors said.
At first, Johnson admitted only to receiving about $2,500 or $3,000 from Brown during the 2009-2010 season. But by the middle of the FBI interview, he said Brown told him the point spreads and how the bettors were wagering — both for the first half and the entire game. An excerpt:
FBI agent: Did T.J. come to you and say, “Hey, look, this is the points, this is the first-half points, these are the second-half points?”
FBI agent: So he told you those before?
FBI agent: So you consciously knew what the points were?
FBI agent: And he said, “Look, we bet this way”?
Johnson: I know the bets.
Johnson identifies two such games: at Portland on Feb. 11, 2010, and home against Loyola Marymount two weeks later.
He didn’t play against Portland, a 70-56 loss, either because he had a groin injury (the school’s version) or because he was suspended (his version in the FBI interview). Against Loyola Marymount, he came off the bench and had four points in 25 minutes, making 1 of 6 shots and committing five turnovers. In the final minute, with USD trailing by four, Johnson missed a shot and committed a turnover on consecutive possessions.
USD was favored by 3½ points and lost 72-69, and Johnson said he received money from Brown afterward, according to the transcript.
What the interview reveals
“That (FBI) conversation with Brandon shows only two things,” said Matthews, Brown’s attorney. “One, that Brandon was aware people were betting on USD basketball games. But that’s common knowledge, because people bet on college basketball games all the time.
“And two, that Brandon got money from T.J. Brown. But T.J. considered him to be like his little brother. He had been helping Brandon financially for years. That Brandon says he got money establishes no criminality.”
Throughout the interview, the FBI agents played clips of wiretapped phone conversations between Johnson and Brown who appear to be discussing specific games and incidents. Johnson repeatedly insisted he was “just kidding” around with Brown, his former coach whom he described as being like “a godbrother.”
“OK, listen,” one of the agents told Johnson. “I get that maybe you were kidding around maybe a call or two, or whatever, you and T.J. But I mean, we have lots of recordings, lot of stuff, where it’s consistent every time where … you clearly know that you’re getting money based on the outcome.”
One of the agents also said: “It’s my fault for not bringing the video with us, but I wish I had the video of that LMU game. It kind of tells a different story.”
When asked why he took money from Brown after certain games, Johnson said:
“In my head, I didn’t do enough, you know, if he gave it to me or not. I couldn’t be like: ‘Well, I did my part, you know?’ I know I didn’t do nothing. It was just free in the sense of, I didn’t do nothing to help them win or lose, I didn’t keep the point spread.”
How a player gets recruited
Johnson, who by last April was playing for the Dakota Wizards in the NBA Development League, confirmed in the interview that he recruited former USD teammate Ken Rancifer to meet with the bettors.
U-T San Diego reported last year that Rancifer — a part-time starter who recently completed his junior season at the university — met with several of the defendants in February 2011 and was offered a monetary bribe but declined to participate.
“When I was talking to Ken,” Johnson told the FBI agents, “it was like: ‘You ain’t got to do nothing. I didn’t do nothing, you know? You just got to go out and play.’”
Johnson discussed a frustrating senior season in which he was recovering from Achilles’ tendon surgery and had several run-ins with head coach Bill Grier. The Toreros, who had been to the NCAA Tournament in 2008, were in the midst of a second straight non-winning season.
“It’s like, you know, this is just not the year I want to be here,” Johnson said of the 2009-10 season. “It was just like a dead year.”
The agents cited “animosity toward the coach” and not being treated “with the amount of respect you deserved for all the effort you put into the basketball program for three years prior.” Then, they asked: “Could that be your reason for you to go along with T.J. and maybe make a little money?”
Johnson responded: “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. … Yeah, that’s how it came about. It’s just like I don’t care, you know?”
Last fall, Judge Battaglia set a tentative trial date of Sept. 4 for the bribery case, but court dates have continually been rescheduled. A pretrial motion hearing last summer was pushed to the fall, then this April and now June. (source San Diego UT.com)