Maria Elena Perez — the Miami criminal defense attorney for convicted Ponzi schemer and former University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro — was thrust Wednesday into the harsh spotlight of the NCAA’s probe of UM’s athletic program.
“I haven’t broken any rules,” Perez, a 2000 UM law school graduate, told The Miami Herald. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
The NCAA acknowledged that its enforcement officers “improperly” obtained information by working too closely with Perez, whose client instigated the NCAA probe that has been going on for two years.
In saying so, the NCAA has, in effect, made her a part of the UM investigation.
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Perez became Shapiro’s criminal defense lawyer soon after he was charged in April 2010 with orchestrating a $930 million investment scam. Shapiro, who used a portion of that money to make donations to UM and buy gifts for many of its star football players, would plead guilty to securities fraud and other charges. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
At the same time, Shapiro’s investment victims forced his Miami Beach-based company, Capitol Investments USA, Inc., into bankruptcy with a goal toward recovering millions of dollars in losses.
But Perez told The Herald she used the bankruptcy case for a different purpose: to gather evidence from major witnesses who might help her seek a lower prison sentence for Shapiro.
“I was exercising my due diligence as Nevin Shapiro’s criminal defense attorney,” she said.
Toward that end, she subpoenaed Sean Allen, a UM graduate and former assistant equipment manager for the Hurricanes’ football team, who worked briefly for Shapiro’s sports agency and later for the businessman himself. She also subpoenaed Jacksonville lawyer Michael Huyghue, who founded the sports agency and brought in Shapiro as a partner, who invested $1.5 million.
The NCAA investigators did not have the power to subpoena either man. But Perez did, as Shapiro’s lawyer.
After Perez grilled both men under oath, she shared their 2011 depositions with the NCAA. The association said it paid her for those legal services, including her time for taking the depositions and related costs.
That’s the crux of the problem: The NCAA now admits that its investigation is tainted by those two depositions — because the information was “improperly” obtained. So it has now ordered up an investigation of its investigation.
This was not her intention at all, Perez said.
“This was for Nevin Shapiro’s criminal case,” said Perez, who joined the Florida Bar in 2001 but has no disciplinary history. She pointed out that depositions are open to the public. Anybody, including the NCAA, could have gotten them as a public record.
While no NCAA enforcement officer attended her depositions, one official from the association did show up for other depositions taken by Miami lawyer Gary Freedman, the lead attorney for the trustee in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case.
NCAA official Michael Zonder sat in on the October 2012 deposition of civil attorney Marc Levinson, of the Miami firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Levinson had represented Shapiro in his investment in the sports agency known as Axcess, and in his other business affairs.