Exclusive: Investigation Illustrated
USCFootball.com has reviewed and analyzed the key photograph used by the NCAA enforcement staff and Committee on Infractions to help prove that USC running backs coach Todd McNair knew that Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels were providing benefits to Reggie Bush.
The photograph, taken on Oct. 29, 2005 at a Hollywood club, is part of the NCAA enforcement staff's Case Summary. The summary, which USCFootball.com has also reviewed, contains interviews, evidence and the NCAA enforcement staff's conclusions in the case.
Todd McNair, Faizon Love, Michael Michaels and Lloyd Lake, left to right
Lake, a would-be sports marketer accused of giving Bush and his family impermissible benefits, provided the photo to NCAA investigators as detailed in the Case Summary. The final Committee on Infractions Report, however, noted that the photograph was taken on partner Michaels' cell phone. The Case Summary has no mention of the photograph coming from Michaels' phone.
The ultimate finding against McNair was that he provided false and misleading information when stating that he did not have a relationship with Lake or his marketing firm and that "to the best of his knowledge" had never met or spoken to Lake.
Three key pieces of evidence were used to support the NCAA claim that McNair provided false information: Three one-minute calls after the USC-Washington State game between McNair's phone and Lake's, a two-minute, 32-second phone call from Lake's phone to McNair's on Jan. 8, 2006 and the photograph in question.
As stated by McNair, he was out at a Hollywood club following the USC game against Washington State with his friend, actor Faizon Love. McNair repeatedly told investigators that he did not recall meeting Lake or having his picture taken with him. McNair's response to the allegations notes that it is not uncommon for the coach to pose for pictures while at clubs or parties.
In questioning Lake about the photograph, the NCAA enforcement staff, according to the record, does not ask him to describe the conditions under which it was taken or whether there was any interaction between McNair, Lake and Michaels that night. The photo, even if authentic, as USC and McNair noted in their Responses, merely puts the two in the same place. It does not prove any other interaction or that they spoke about Bush's improper benefits.
The NCAA Case Summary states:
"McNair, when told that the photograph may have been taken on the night of October 29, said: "I don't know. I, you know, there was some dudes that was with us, not with us, came with us, was staying or whatever, uh, this is my friend (Love). I'm with him, you know, I don't know." McNair continued that the photograph was of him and Love, and that the other two individuals in the photograph were standing behind them. When asked by [NCAA associate director of enforcement Rich] Johanningmeier, McNair denied that he knew two of the individuals in the photograph."
USC and McNair raised questions about the authenticity of the photograph in their Responses:
"USC does not concede the authenticity of the photograph, and has not received the original digital file, despite repeated requests to the Staff. USC has had an expert examine this photograph, and the expert can neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the photograph the Staff provided. The expert can, however, state with certainty that the photograph provided is not original and has been altered or cropped."
USCFootball.com contacted an independent photography expert, who asked not to be identified, to examine the photo.
"I would not say it's been doctored significantly using something like Photoshop," the expert said. "The uniform darkening in the background is one thing that gives me pause because there is nothing in the background to line the people up with. As far as cropping the photo, that is a definite possibility, but I couldn't say for sure unless I saw the actual file. The pixel size of the photo is not typical, no camera has that as an original size. That is the first sign that the image was re-sized and possibly cropped."
Neither USC nor McNair were presented the original photo for review. Of the photographs provided by the NCAA enforcement staff, the McNair-Love photo was the only one not in the JPEG file format and was provided in the BMP format. USC's Response to the NCAA Allegations notes that "JPEG is the default format for digital cameras" and that "one way to conceal evidence of any changes is to convert or save the altered photograph to a different format such as BMP."
Because BMP is an older, compression-less photo format, it also calls into question the statement that the Infractions Committee made, saying that the photograph comes from Michaels' cell phone.
For example, the most popular cell phone in 2005, Motorola's RAZR, contained a VGA camera (640x480 resolution) with 10 megabytes internal memory. The camera took photos in the JPEG photo format. The photo in question, when saved at VGA resolution in the BMP format, equates to a file that would be between 1.0 and 1.5 megabytes. If the camera took photos in the BMP format, the phone would be able to store fewer than 10 images.
USC casts further doubt as to the authenticity of the photograph by providing a witness who, "was certain that both (Lake) and (Michaels) were wearing entirely different clothes that night than those shown in the photograph." The high profile prospect Bush was hosting that night also stated that he saw Lake and Michaels and that they were not wearing the clothes in the photograph, instead "they had on button ups."
Also casting doubt on the NCAA's theory that McNair and Lake discussed Lake's sports agency and its relationship to Bush, was the testimony of Lake's girlfriend, Maiesha Jones. Jones testified that Lake told her Bush had introduced him to some USC coaches, but never mentioned having any conversation with them. The Case Summary details Jones' interview:
"Jones, when asked if it was her impression that October 29 was the first time Lake met McNair, replied, "I'm pretty sure." When asked why, Jones said, "Because Bush introduced us to all these people." Jones recalled Lake pointing to McNair in the photograph and saying that Bush was an "idiot" for introducing them to everyone. [Jones March 31, 2008, interview transcript, Page No. 50] Jones, when asked if the photo of McNair, Love, Michaels and Lake was taken on the day or night of the game (October 29), replied, "That was my understanding." When asked if her understanding was based on her telephone calls with Lake, Jones replied: "Unless I'm getting the nights mixed up. But I know it was after a game and they were all going out."
Jones never said Lake told her about a conversation between the two, only that they had met. Lake was never questioned as to what he discussed with McNair that night. McNair said that, "to the best of his knowledge," he had never met Lake nor heard of him providing extra benefits to Bush. Despite neither saying for certain that they discussed any benefits at all at the club, the Committee ultimately concluded that the photograph was proof that the two had been introduced there and therefore McNair should have known about the benefits Bush received.
McNair's Response also notes that even if he did know Lake provided Bush benefits, he was under no obligation to inform USC's compliance staff because he was not involved in providing the benefits:
"Indeed, this appears to be the first time in the history of the NCAA that a coach has been charged with unethical conduct for not reporting a possible violation in which the coach had no involvement... The staff has charged McNair with unethical conduct in Allegation 1b only because the staff believes McNair knew or should have known about some of the alleged impermissible benefits and failed to report them. That is an unprecedented charge to be made against an assistant coach and it reveals the imaginative lengths the staff has gone to in this case in an attempt to somehow connect USC to the secret arrangement between Bush and Lake."
In their Response to the NCAA Allegations, USC also noted the "absurdity" of the Committee's reasoning that because McNair and Lake were in a photograph together, they spoke about the sports agency and improper benefits to Bush and his family. As one way to dispel the Committee's stance, USC provided a photo that made national news to illustrate the point.
The photo, USC noted, shows two people who appear to be well-known to Vice President Joseph Biden. As numerous news reports recounted the actual story, the Vice President not only didn't know the Salahi couple in the photo with him, they had crashed the state dinner, attending without an invitation.
"A picture tells us nothing about the relationships of the people depicted," USC's response said.
In determining that McNair was not credible in his testimony, in part because of the photo, the Committee concluded that he lied and misled the enforcement staff about his relationship with Lake.
McNair was given a show-cause penalty preventing him from recruiting activities for one year. Both USC and McNair have appealed the Committee on Infractions' findings and sanctions.
Dan Weber contributed to this story.
Bryan Fischer covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at email@example.com.