UM INVESTIGATION

Fired investigator says NCAA was unhappy about progress on Miami Hurricanes case

 

The lead investigator in the UM gift-giving probe claims that he was fired by the NCAA because it did not like how he was handling the case.

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

A former NCAA investigator who ran the organization’s troubled probe of alleged gift-giving to University of Miami athletes said he was fired last year because his bosses were unhappy with his lack of progress on the case.

The collegiate governing body has refused to say why it dismissed Ameen Najjar, who would later become the central figure in the NCAA’s internal probe of its own mishandling of the UM case.

After that probe was completed in February, the NCAA issued its Notice of Allegations, accusing the university of lack of institutional control over convicted UM booster Nevin Shapiro, who claims he plied star football and basketball players with cash, parties and other impermissible gifts.

But in newly disclosed emails exchanged with Shapiro — the key NCAA witness who is serving a 20-year sentence for directing a massive investment scam — Najjar revealed why he thought he was fired and complained about the Hurricanes investigation.

“I was fired today,” Najjar, a lawyer and former police officer, wrote Shapiro via a federal prison email link on May 16, 2012.

“Apparently because they did not like the way I was moving the Miami case along. The conditions I have been working under for the past year have been horrible and it has taken a toll on me and my family. I am sorry and do not know what this means for the investigation.”

Najjar, who could not be reached for comment, continued to exchange emails with Shapiro in the months after his firing — including calling the NCAA’s 2012 deal with Penn State over sexual-abuse charges a “travesty.” The NCAA also could not be reached for comment.

Getting impatient

The Najjar emails, filed Tuesday by Shapiro’s defense attorney as part of an effort to correct the record in his federal criminal case, suggest that the NCAA brass was growing impatient with the UM investigation. Attorney Maria Elena Perez has asked the federal judge to remove a “character” letter from the file that Najjar wrote on her client’s behalf before his sentencing in June 2011 for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme.

“Throughout the course of our interactions, it is my belief that Mr. Shapiro possesses a unique depth of knowledge and experience concerning representatives of athletics interest [‘Boosters’], agents and the provision of extra-benefits to student-athletes,” Najjar wrote U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton. “It is possible, that the NCAA could utilize Mr. Shapiro in the future as a consultant and/or speaker to educate our membership.”

When The Associated Press first published the content of Najjar’s letter last month, the NCAA was quoted as saying in a statement: “Nevin Shapiro has not been and will not be a consultant for the NCAA.”

In her filing, Shapiro’s lawyer said she now wants to bring this discrepancy to the judge’s attention for ethical reasons because Najjar had made “misrepresentations” in his letter that sought to help the convicted felon.

Shapiro came to know Najjar through correspondence in the months after the former UM booster first reported his alleged gift-giving violations to the NCAA in March 2011.

The emails filed in Shapiro’s criminal case suggest they had come to rely on each other in their joint mission targeting UM. The emails also imply the pair had become friendly.

Najjar, who had worked on the Hurricanes probe for a year, wrote Shapiro in a May 21, 2012, email that he shared the former booster’s anger over his firing.

“You are not the only one who is upset!” Najjar emailed Shapiro.

“This has been going on for months and my belief is that they [NCAA officials] simply want to get the case done, even if it is half or only one-quarter done,” Najjar wrote. “I don’t know if it is simply to meet some arbitrary timeline or the upper levels are trying to save Miami. I suspect it’s the latter.”

Najjar appears to have been wrong on all points.

In late March, the university and at least four former Hurricanes coaches who received NCAA notices of allegations involving Shapiro’s cash payments to players filed motions to dismiss the case, multiple sources told The Miami Herald.

The coaches included former basketball head coach Frank Haith, his assistants Jorge Fernandez and Jake Morton and former football assistant Aubrey Hill, according to multiple people involved with the case.

Collaboration

UM and the coaches filed their motions in the aftermath of the NCAA’s recent internal investigation of its enforcement staff’s mishandling of the Hurricanes case. That probe zeroed in on the collaboration between Perez and Najjar, starting in September 2011, to use subpoenas in Shapiro’s federal bankruptcy case to take depositions of witnesses who had refused to cooperate with the organization.

Perez said her client was an early advocate for taking the depositions of Sean Allen, a former UM assistant football equipment manager, and Michael Huyghue, Shapiro’s former partner in a sports agency. Perez took theirs in December 2011. She said Shapiro also wanted her to depose UM basketball booster Dave Leshner and Shapiro’s bodyguard, Mario Sanchez, but neither materialized.

Shapiro’s goal: to help recover money for the victims of his investment scheme, which might also lead to a lower prison sentence, and to exact revenge on UM.

Top NCAA officials said they discovered last September that Perez was paid thousands of dollars for that work.

In January, the NCAA hired a law firm to investigate its enforcement staff’s conduct in the case and the organization’s payments to Perez.

Kenneth Wainstein, whose law firm did the investigation, found that part of the UM probe was done improperly — but none of the organization’s bylaws were broken. As a result, about 20 percent of the evidence against UM was tossed out, including the Allen and Huyghue depositions, 13 interviews and parts of 12 others that used information from those depositions and two other interviews with Allen.

Wainstein’s investigation determined that NCAA enforcement staff members knowingly circumvented internal legal advice not to hire Shapiro’s criminal defense attorney. “Mr. Najjar chose not to follow that legal advice, deciding instead to come up with a ‘way around it,’ ’’ according to Wainstein’s report.

Naima Stevenson, the NCAA’s associate general counsel, learned last September that Najjar, the lead investigator, disregarded the legal department’s advice and struck a deal with Perez for her role in assisting the case. NCAA president Mark Emmert was also informed last September.

Najjar said he told Perez the enforcement staff would not pay her for billable hours, but they could reimburse her for costs and expenses. But Perez said Najjar told her the NCAA would pay her for “costs and fees.”

The NCAA paid Shapiro’s attorney more than $20,000, including out-of-pocket expenses, and transferred $4,500 to Shapiro’s prison account for phone calls.

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