New bosses for ex-NC State coach say hiring records are off-limits

Former N.C. State Coach Mark Gottfried’s new employer – Cal State Northridge – is standing behind him, confident that his name appearing in a subpoena for records as part of a federal probe into undisclosed payments to basketball recruits and assistant coaches at several schools is not an issue.

Cal State Northridge officials are not providing information showing what due diligence they did in hiring Gottfried and what turned up. They declined a records request from The News & Observer, saying such information is exempt under California’s public records laws.

A short denial letter from Karina W. Ward, the university’s public records coordinator, said the university “cannot accommodate the requests” due to California laws related to preliminary drafts of records and personnel records that would amount to an invasion of privacy. She also cited a law that allows records to be withheld when there is not an overriding public interest in releasing information otherwise considered private.

She did not specify what records the university had in hand related to the N&O’s request.

This week, the N&O and the Los Angeles Times responded to the denial with a letter from Karl Olson, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in public records law. Olson said none of the public records exemptions Ward cited apply to the request. The LA Times had made a similar public records request.

“The burden is on the public agency, in this case CSU Northridge, to show that the interest in non-disclosure ‘clearly outweighs’ the interest in disclosure,” Olson wrote to Ward. “You do not even attempt to make that showing.”

He also said the university ignored public records precedent set in California courts that cite open government as “essential to the functioning of a democracy.”

Ryan Eskin, Cal State's university counsel, said in an interview that personnel information can't be released unless it's determined Gottfried was involved in wrongdoing. But he said he would review what has been gathered.

Eskin said Gottfried's contract calls for his termination with no further pay if it turns out he was involved in or aware of improper behavior.

Cal State Northridge announced Gottfried as the new men’s basketball coach on March 13. Three days later, NCSU released a copy of the subpoena to the N&O in response to a public records request. It showed that a federal grand jury had requested correspondence between athletic staff and former top guard Dennis Smith Jr., his family and other representatives. The subpoena also requested correspondence between athletic staff and adidas representatives, and personnel information for Gottfried and one of his assistants, Orlando Early.

A superseding indictment made public last month alleged an adidas representative, James Gatto, conspired with an unnamed NCSU coach to funnel $40,000 to the father of a recruit believed to be Smith. He played his one and only season for NCSU last year and is now with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.

Correspondence in the case obtained by Yahoo! Sports referenced an email between sports agent Andy Miller and an associate, Christian Dawkins, in which they are talking about phone conversations with Gottfried and Early. Dawkins has been charged in the federal case. Yahoo has also reported other records indicating Miller’s agency loaned Smith $73,500.

Attempts to interview Gottfried and Early about the case have been unsuccessful. Gottfried was fired last year near the end of a losing season. Early was also released. NCSU officials recently reported they have no documentation connecting Gottfried, Early or others at the university to the federal allegations.

Cal State, shortly after the release of the subpoena, asserted Gottfried’s hire would not cause trouble for its basketball program.

“The great thing about bringing Mark Gottfried to CSUN is that we had a 20-year track record to review,” the university said in a statement. “Coach Gottfried has an excellent compliance record and understands how to build winners the right way. We did our own due diligence and, as both Coach Gottfried and officials at North Carolina State have said, there are no red flags whatsoever.”

Several other schools, including national powers Louisville and Kansas, have been pulled into the federal investigation.

Olson wrote “there is a very strong public interest in knowing what CSU Northridge knew and when it knew it about the recruiting scandal involving Coach Gottfried when he was at NC State, and the extent to which CSU Northridge vetted the coach – who appears to be the subject of an FBI investigation – before giving him a multi-million dollar, long-term contract.”

The LA Times reported Gottfried’s contract runs six years with a first-year base salary of $400,000. It also reported that Gottfried said at the time he was announced as coach that he had discussed the FBI investigation with Cal State Northridge President Dianne F. Harrison.

“I don’t foresee any red flags that I’m aware of,” Gottfried said then.

Cal State Northridge’s men’s basketball team is in the Division I mid-major Big West conference that is mostly made up of California public universities. It last played in the NCAA tournament in 2009.

Kane: 919-829-4861; @dankanenando