The University of Miami may have caught a break when the NCAA admitted breaking its own rules by improperly gathering certain evidence for its investigation into the Hurricanes’ athletic program. But the school should not be breaking out the champagne just yet.
The NCAA might still push forward with the nearly 2-year-old probe, based on former UM booster Nevin Shapiro’s admissions that he handed out cash and other gifts to dozens of the Canes’ star football and basketball players.
The investigation could still be built on Shapiro’s financial records and other documents, along with testimony from former UM players, coaches and staff members who already cooperated with the NCAA.
The NCAA could restart the investigation from scratch, which is unlikely. Or, it could cut a deal with the university, which has already suspended football players, given up post-season bowl appearances and suffered reputational damage.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to get the UM investigation behind UM and the NCAA,” Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis, who teaches ethics, said Thursday. “If a settlement was being contemplated, this will speed along any settlement negotiations.”
On Wednesday, the NCAA shocked South Florida — and the rest of the country — when it acknowledged in a press conference that its investigators “improperly” obtained information by working too closely with the criminal defense attorney for Shapiro, a now-convicted Ponzi schemer serving a 20-year sentence.
NCAA President Mark Emmert admitted that the association paid Miami attorney Maria Elena Perez for taking the December 2011 depositions of two witnesses she subpoenaed to testify in the bankruptcy case of Shapiro’s former Miami Beach company. He said the NCAA learned about her arrangement with the association’s enforcement officers last fall.
Under NCAA policy, the association’s investigators did not have the power to issue subpoenas to compel the testimony of the two witnesses: former UM assistant equipment manager Sean Allen, who briefly worked for Shapiro’s sports agency and later for the businessman himself; and Jacksonville lawyer Michael Huyghue, who founded the sports agency known as Axcess and brought in Shapiro as a partner after he invested $1.5 million.
Shapiro’s lawyer, Perez, told The Miami Herald that she took the depositions as part of her strategy to corroborate his version of events and to seek a reduced prison sentence for him. She grilled both Allen and Huyghue, who testified under oath, about Shapiro’s $930 million investment scam, his gift-giving to dozens of UM players, and their collective financial efforts to recruit Canes’ prospects for the NFL.
“These questions were about following the money trial,” Perez said.
Jarvis and other legal experts said Perez may have an ethics problem with the Florida Bar if she compromised her client’s interests while working on behalf of the NCAA in taking the two depositions. Perez said she did nothing wrong because she always kept Shapiro’s defense paramount.
No NCAA representative attended the men’s depositions, according to court records. But an NCAA investigator stood outside the office where Allen answered the lawyer’s questions. Copies of both depositions were given to the NCAA.