'Big development' in college hoops corruption case as grassroots boss makes plea deal with feds

The feds’ investigation into college hoops corruption continues on as grassroots team director T.J. Gassnola apparently decided to cooperate with investigators. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

In a development that hints at further expansion of the investigation into the underbelly of college basketball, federal paperwork released on Friday afternoon shows that a prominent grassroots team director in Massachusetts has cooperated with federal officials in the ongoing case.

T.J. Gassnola, who ran the Adidas-sponsored New England Playaz and served as a consultant to the apparel company, pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and was released on $50,000 bond. His sentencing date is set for Oct. 19.

The plea deal says Gassnola gave money to the families of basketball recruits “in connection with the student-athlete’s commitment to play basketball for those universities, thereby causing the universities to provide athletic scholarships to those student-athletes.” (No specific universities were mentioned.) The fraud charge is tied to the basic theory of the case that the athletes involved weren’t eligible to play because of the payments, which put the universities involved at risk.

Perhaps more important, the paperwork also shows that Gassnola participated in numerous proffer sessions with the federal prosecutors “in which he’s disclosed his criminal activities and those of others,” according to the federal paperwork. In these sessions, the information included “the scheme charged in the information and other, related schemes, including information involving individuals and/or conduct that has not yet been charged.”

The development, which was released late Friday afternoon by federal officials, hints at continued expansion of the federal government’s already sweeping look into the basketball underworld.

“This is a big development in this case,” said Stephen L. Hill Jr., a partner at Dentons in Kansas City and former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted AAU coach Myron Piggie in the early 2000s. “I would anticipate they are taking the information from various individuals cooperating and considering expanding their investigation if that’s where the facts lead them.”

Gassnola is well known in New England basketball circles, as he’s been a polarizing figure for more than a decade. He holds ties to multiple pillars of the case: former NBA agent Andy Miller; Adidas; and multiple Adidas-sponsored college programs.

Earlier this month, federal paperwork showed that a co-conspirator that Yahoo sources identified as Gassnola had conspired to make payments to basketball recruits at both Kansas and North Carolina State. That included Gassnola delivering cash to hotel rooms in Las Vegas and New York City and wiring money to a parent of Kansas recruit Billy Preston. He also withdrew $40,000 for an N.C. State coach to solidify the commitment of Dennis Smith Jr. and spoke about arranging $20,000 for Kansas recruit Silvio De Sousa.

Gassnola pled on March 30, two weeks before the release of the updated indictment that included Kansas and North Carolina State. The updated indictment came out on April 11.

“The timing suggests he’d pled guilty and it was under seal well in advance of the new allegations, suggesting that he could have been one of the sources for the new allegations,” Hill said.

Gassnola has long held ties to Miller, the former NBA agent who relinquished his certification in the wake of the scandal. (Miller employed Christian Dawkins, a runner at the heart of the investigation.) Miller’s bank records, viewed by Yahoo Sports, showed Gassnola received $17,300 from Miller’s agency. Gassnola’s program was also once banned by the NCAA, back in 2012, for its ties to Miller.

Gassnola and his lawyer, Dan Kelly, did not respond to requests for comment.

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