In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: The NCAA had big plans for slick-talking Nevin Shapiro

Now we know. There was more to the NCAA’s collusion with a convicted Ponzi schemer than an overzealous and ethically bent campaign to nail the University of Miami.

Think Nevin Shapiro — motivational speaker.

Apparently, Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford and Scott Rothstein were unavailable for the college speaking circuit. They were already booked.

Back in 2011, the NCAA’s director of enforcement intervened on behalf of the association’s favorite criminal mastermind. Shapiro had pleaded guilty to ripping off 62 unwitting investors, stealing $82 million with his arbitrage fraud and funding a South Florida lifestyle of utter hedonism — yacht, fancy cars, bay front mansion, wild parties, $9 million in gambling losses. He was in sore need of a good character reference.

Ameen Najjar, using NCAA stationary, wrote to U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton four days before Shapiro’s sentence hearing, suggesting that if she’d go easy on his boy, the NCAA might hire him “in the future as a consultant and/or speaker to educate our membership.”

Shapiro, in addition to snookering investors, also claimed he had singlehandedly corrupted the amateur status of scores of University of Miami athletes with what the NCAA considers impermissible gratuities between 2002 and 2010. The FBI saw him as a lying, conniving crook. The NCAA saw him as a valuable asset.

In Najjar’s June 3, 2011 letter, unearthed last week by the Associated Press, the NCAA investigator told the judge, “Throughout the course of our interactions, it is my belief that Mr. Shapiro possesses a unique depth of knowledge and experience concerning representatives athletics interest (’boosters’), agents and the provision of extra-benefits to student-athletes.”

Apparently the NCAA considers slipping young athletes money or luring them to raucous parties an abstruse and highly specialized skill set. And wouldn’t it be a shame to lock up all that valuable know-how in a federal pen.

The Najjar’s letter was a bit more positive than the recollections offered by Shapiro’s victims. At the sentencing, the prosector read a statement from one of his investors, identified as “J.H.”: “Shapiro was impossible to contact. And even when I could, it was one lie after another with more excuses than one could possibly fabricate in a lifetime. Shapiro is a very good liar. I’m sure he could look the court in the eye, tell a lie and seem believable. Don’t believe it. Shapiro has destroyed lives forever, including that of mine, my wife and my daughter.

“I continued to pay the mortgage on my home as long as possible. I took a loan from my 401(k), stopped contributing to my retirement fund, sold my rental property and everything else to make mortgage payments. The money ran out. It got so bad, all I could afford to buy my 13-year-old daughter for Christmas in 2010 was face wash. After that, she got a card for her birthday in February. And that was it for me. The home I spent two years designing, 14 years living in with my wife and daughter, belongs to the bank in foreclosure. We lost everything we had and the dreams of a young girl are shattered. I’m completely embarrassed with friends and family. With all the stress, I developed an irregular heartbeat, had to see a cardiologist and almost lost my job. It destroyed my life and everything I’ve worked to achieve. I can only pray that the day of ultimate truth is upon him.”

Judge Wigenton was not much motivated by the NCAA’s need for a motivational speaker. Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a range of 168 to 210 months in prison. She considered Shapiro’s impenitent sleaziness and upped the sentence to 240 months. (If Shapiro, after serving the mandatory 85 percent of his sentence, is released on probation, the judge ordered that before any business dealings, he must notify the other party — take note NCAA — “of the risks that may be occasioned by the defendant’s criminal record or personal history or characteristics.”)

In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals (Third Circuit) rejected an appeal of the 20-year sentence, finding that the judge “adequately explained why she chose to vary upward, emphasizing Shapiro’s leadership role in the scheme, the duration of the scheme, the magnitude of the loss, the number of victims and Shapiro’s continued willingness to blame others and soil their reputations.”

After the AP story broke, the NCAA issued a statement indicating that it has lost interest in hiring Shapiro. “Nevin Shapiro has not been and will not be a consultant for the NCAA.” Little wonder. Shapiro won’t emerge from prison before 2028. By then, his vaunted expertise as a debaucher of young athletes will be rather dated.

The letter from Najjar, who was fired last year by the NCAA, added another whiff of quid pro quo to an investigation tainted by impropriety. It adds to the sense that Najjar and his fellow NCAA investigators went to bizarre lengths to keep Shapiro happy. They supplied the inmate a pre-paid cell phone and deposited $4,500 into his prison commissary account. They also connived with Najjar’s criminal lawyer to exploit Shapiro’s federal bankruptcy case and force reluctant witnesses in the UM investigation to supply depositions that had little to do with his bankruptcy. For that trick, Miami lawyer Maria Elena Perez, billing at $350 an hour, sent the NCAA nine invoices totaling $57,115. (The NCAA only paid about $19,000 before the deal blew up into a national scandal.) The apparent subterfuge prompted U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno last week to order an investigation into whether Perez had strayed into unethical behavior. The Florida Bar has been digging into the case since January.

The tainted UM investigation still drags on, though Najjar was fired last year. And after the NCAA investigated its own investigation-gone-wild, his boss, NCAA vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach, was similarly zapped. But the 52-page report into the botched handling of the UM case failed to mention how the NCAA had lent its prestige to Ponzi thief in federal court, intimating that if the judge would go easy on him, he’d make a fine motivational speaker.

Not that the judge doubted Shapiro’s talent as a slick talker. Judge Wigenton might have been referring to the NCAA when she told the convict, “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."

Months after he was carted off to the pokey, Shapiro still cranks out the motivational nuggets that stir an NCAA investigator’s heart. He e-mailed the Herald’s Barry Jackson promising that, even from prison, he would find a way to wreak even more vengeance. “It’s going to be severe and catastrophic. My feelings are getting inflamed and I’m going to pop off pretty soon with regards to them and the NCAA. I’m coming for them both [UM and former players] and I’m going to be successful,” the prisoner promised Jackson. “I’m taking that program down to Chinatown . . . Why? Because the U.S. government lined up 47 former players to testify against me in open court if I went to trial. That in itself is motivation to shove it up their collective [butts].”

Down to Chinatown. Pretty moving words. Downright inspirational. You can understand why the NCAA wanted a place for Nevin Shapiro in their organization. Now that John Gotti’s no longer available.

A previous version of this column incorrectly indicated that UM is Shapiro's alma mater.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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