Days after federal investigators first confronted USC athletes on campus, Munir McClain, the suspended Trojans wide receiver at the center of their probe, stood in front of cameras outside Galen Center, reading from a prepared statement that marked his first public comments since a September suspension from the football team escalated into a federal investigation.
As questions mounted over the nature of that suspension and the investigation that followed, McClain confirmed to a small crowd at a makeshift news conference Sunday that he did indeed apply for — and receive — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and that he did so with the help of an employee at the California Employment Development Department.
“I believe that I did everything right,” McClain said.
Behind him, eight USC football players, including his brother, Trojans linebacker Abdul-Malik McClain, and senior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, stood in quiet solidarity with the sophomore, wearing masks and USC athletic gear.
None of the players, including Munir, answered questions from the media Sunday. But in just more than a week, several USC players will be compelled to answer questions under oath about what they know about McClain, unemployment benefits and an apparent plan at USC that sparked an ethics complaint alleging that students were approached to fraudulently file for EDD benefits.
The Times obtained a copy of a subpoena given to one of those players, which states that the recipient is required to appear before a grand jury in conjunction with “an official criminal investigation being conducted by the Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General.” The subpoena is signed by Kerry Quinn, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Major Frauds Section.
Najee Ali, a local civil rights activist who organized the news conference, said that USC and federal investigators were treating McClain “like he’s Michael Corleone, like he’s the Godfather, like he’s part of this criminal enterprise and they’re about to introduce the RICO act upon him.”
It’s unclear which players or how many were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, but the scope of the investigation appears to go beyond a single PUA claim.
“It’s now bigger than Munir,” Ali declared Sunday.
One of those players could be his brother, Abdul-Malik. On Tuesday, investigators came to the dormitory room shared by the brothers in search of Abdul-Malik. Asked on Sunday whether her oldest son also applied for unemployment benefits, Shan McClain said only, “I don’t want to answer that question.”
Several players recently held a team meeting in support of Munir, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Others who appeared at the news conference Sunday included offensive linemen Casey Collier and Courtland Ford, linebackers Spencer Gilbert and Elijah Winston, cornerback Adonis Otey and defensive lineman Jamar Sekona.
In a university statement, USC said that “Coach Helton has told his team not to engage in rumors, to focus on football, and always to do the right thing.”
Helton is scheduled to speak with media members Monday morning.
A release announcing the news conference said it would be held “in support of Munir, in defiance of Clay Helton.” But that defiance dissolved — at least, publicly — Sunday.
“I think I misspoke,” said Ali, who wrote the release. “Ultimately, we’re not in defiance. We’re just trying to work in unity. I was emotional when I sent it out. I felt this young man has been wronged.”
Both Ali and Shan McClain remained steadfast in that belief. While neither criticized Helton, each took aim at USC for denying McClain due process and refusing to meet with Shan McClain or her legal counsel.
An Oct. 14 email from Ali shared with The Times and directed to USC chief of staff Brandon Sosna noted that “Shan and Munir have been given few details and are essentially in limbo due to the lack of communication from SC school officials.”
Ali also criticized USC for not providing subpoenaed players with legal counsel. But an NCAA bylaw limits universities from providing such counsel, unless the case involves matters of eligibility or something directly tied to athletic competition or practice.
“If Munir has done something wrong, please tell him what it is,” Shan McClain said. “If there’s something that’s gone wrong, is it USC’s way to just go against the football team? Is that your way? Or is there restorative justice? Do you get it right in-house first? Or do you just throw him away?”
Shan said USC has provided no answers to those questions. A university statement rejected that notion, stating that “USC has spoken about this matter with Munir McClain and his mother Shan McClain. We will not discuss those conversations out of respect for student privacy and due to the pending investigation.”
That investigation will soon be taken to a grand jury, where other Trojans athletes, quiet until now, will be compelled to share what they know about unemployment benefits and their own connections to the sophomore USC wide receiver who accepted them this past summer.
“He’s the victim here,” Ali said of Munir. “They need to understand that this is not how we treat members of the Trojan family.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.