In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: In UM case, NCAA should heed words of judge who sent Shapiro to prison

Nevin Shapiro and Lloyd Lake share very special attributes.

Both were would-be sports agents, known for the nefarious tactics they employed to lure young jocks into their sphere.

Both men claimed to have corrupted the so-called amateur status of certain college athletes, Shapiro at the University of Miami, Lake at the University of Southern California. And both, in fits of vengeful pique, implicated both schools in violations that the NCAA has categorized as “a loss of institutional control.”

Both men became key witnesses in the NCAA cases against the respective universities and their coaching staffs, making allegations central, even crucial to the damaging cases against the two schools. The NCAA conferred great credibility on both of them. Without these men, there would have been no case against these two national football powers.

The two also have another common attribute: Both are convicted felons.

Lake was the great corruptor who claimed to have lavished USC All-American running back Reggie Bush (lately a Dolphin) and his family with money and gifts, in a failed attempted to get Bush to hire him as a sports agent. The NCAA, however inundated with multi-millionaire coaches and giant TV contracts, does not tolerate their unpaid athletes violating a business plan based on unpaid labor. Lake’s claims led to serious sanctions against the school and assistant football coach Todd McNair. (And to Bush returning his Heisman Trophy.)

Except that McNair, who lost his job after the NCAA charged that he knew what Lake was up to, sued for libel and slander and such. McNair’s attorney based the lawsuit on something that might have been obvious to anyone other than Javert or the ever myopic NCAA enforcement staff: The key witness possessed no more credibility than a jailhouse snitch.

Lake’s rap sheet included seven arrests. He served a prison sentence for a drug conviction. His own attorney described him as “an affiliate” with the Bloods street gang. He has been characterized in federal court as a career offender.

In his suit against the NCAA, McNair charged: “Despite a complete lack of evidence that plaintiff Todd McNair did anything wrong, let alone committed acts amounting to unethical conduct, and despite the NCAA’s own internal regulations,” McNair was sanctioned “solely upon convicted felon Lake’s incomplete responses” to “misleading and suggestive questions.”

When the NCAA’s lawyers attempted to get the lawsuit tossed in November, California Superior Court Judge Frederick Shaller said, instead, that McNair had demonstrated a probability that he could win his case. The judge called him a victim of a “malicious” and “over the top” NCAA investigation.

Those charges have a familiar ring in South Florida, where the NCAA has now admitted that its own investigators improperly paid Nevin Shapiro’s criminal attorney to help them nail UM with crippling sanctions. The NCAA investigators, in desperate need for corroborating witnesses to back up Shapiro’s claims that he had given money and gifts to UM players, paid his attorney to exploit the federal court subpoena power and depose some uncooperative actors. The pretense was that they had information pertinent to Shapiro’s case in U.S. bankruptcy court.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, wildly compensated himself with $1.6 million a year in salary and benefits, admitted that this lousy case had deteriorated into an embarrassing mess. Staffers were fired and Emmert promised that any tainted information would be discarded. Yet on Tuesday, damning charges of “a loss of institutional control” came down against UM, though not much was left of the case beyond the dodgy evidence offered by a convicted Ponzi schemer.

UM President Donna Shalala’s astounded reaction was reminiscent of the sentiment expressed in the McNair lawsuit three months earlier. “Many of the charges brought forth are based on the word of a man who made a fortune by lying. The NCAA enforcement staff acknowledged to the university that if Nevin Shapiro, a convicted con man, said something more than once, it considered the allegation ‘corroborated’—an argument which is both ludicrous and counter to legal practice.”

But to characterize Shapiro as a mere con man understates the extent of his mendacity.

At Shapiro’s 2011 sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton was so taken aback by Shapiro’s twisted narcissism, she wondered whether there was a “pathological component” to his bizarre insistence that he was the real victim in his $930 million Ponzi fraud, and that his duped investors should have known that the returns he was offering in his grocery arbitrage scheme were not realistic.

“I know what it’s like to be a victim of financial fraud and it’s a horrible feeling. It’s invasive, it’s — there’s anger — you know, you feel anger, depression, remorse,” Shapiro told the judge. Of course, his victimhood had been mitigated by his $2 million waterfront mansion, a $1.5 million yacht, the $4,700-a-month leased Mercedes, wild parties, gambling sprees and $400,000 floor-seat season tickets to the Miami Heat.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacob T. Elberg responded angrily, “To suggest that those people were somehow in the wrong for believing the lies that he told them is offensive and it’s wrong.”

Judge Wigenton refused to lower Shapiro’s 20-year prison sentence, saying, “While you certainly have pled guilty, it appears to be this desire to, I don’t know, perhaps blame others, soil others, the reputation of others....”

The judge’s observation was not so different from the findings of the NCAA’s internal investigation. Shapiro’s own attorney, the report said, had admitted to the NCAA investigators that her client “was looking for revenge against the U. Miami players and coaches who he believed had turned their backs on him when he got in trouble with the federal authorities.”

Yet the NCAA clings to the convenient fantasy that their convicted felon of a witness, like Lloyd Lake before him, remains someone worthy of belief. After all, the association’s sanctions case against UM hangs on his meager credibility.

The NCAA infractions committee might want to consider Judge Wigenton’s courtroom remarks at Shapiro’s sentencing hearing in 2011. They seem almost prescient in 2013.

“It just is amazing that so many individuals were duped by you. It’s really amazing,” the judge said. “And I can only conclude that somehow you had an uncanny ability to convince, sway, persuade people to do things that didn’t even make sense….”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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