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Miami law firm sued in UM booster Nevin Shapiro’s bankruptcy case for ‘aiding’ his Ponzi scheme

Long before Nevin Shapiro gained infamy as a rogue University of Miami booster and Ponzi schemer, he was a regular kid growing up on Miami Beach.

His best friend was Marc Levinson, and together they played on the same soccer team, hung out at each other’s houses and formed a “rat pack” of friends at Miami Beach Senior High.

By 2003, Levinson, who by then was an attorney with the major Miami law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, started advising his buddy on Shapiro’s $1.5 million investment in a Florida sports agency.

A decade later, Levinson and the law firm now find themselves accused in a lawsuit of “aiding and abetting” Shapiro’s violations of federal securities laws during his $930 million investment scam, as well as his violations of NCAA regulations involving his alleged cash payments to UM star athletes.

The bankruptcy trustee for Shapiro’s former company, Capitol Investments USA, has sued Levinson and the 500-lawyer firm in a bid to recover some of the $110 million lost by victims fleeced by the convicted Miami Beach businessman. The 43-year-old Shapiro, who was charged with and pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 2010, is serving a 20-year federal prison sentence.

Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a Kansas City, Mo.-based law firm that retained a Miami attorney to represent itself and Levinson, issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” over the legal fight with the bankruptcy trustee. Coincidentally, the suit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez, who once worked as a civil defense attorney alongside Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s lawyers representing Big Tobacco companies against a massive Florida smokers’ class-action case. Martinez recused himself from the case Friday.

“We will diligently defend ourselves in this case, and will continue our commitment to resolve any issues that arise in a reasonable, judicious and professional manner,” the statement said. It added: “Nevin Shapiro deceived many people, including those closest to him, and is serving a prison sentence for his reprehensible conduct.”

Since Miami attorney Joel Tabas became the trustee for Shapiro’s bankrupt business in November 2009, his legal team has recovered $35 million from various parties and redistributed $13 million so far to about 40 victims. More distributions are planned this year. For its work, Tabas’ law firm gets to keep about $11.5 million of the total take.

Among Tabas’ previous “claw backs” with links to the Shook, Hardy & Bacon case:

Shapiro had a serious gambling problem, betting millions of dollars on college and pro football games, while his business of brokering groceries nationwide spun out of control, according to court records.

Tabas declined to comment on the suit against Shook, Hardy & Bacon, filed by his lawyers, Gary Freedman and Andrea Rigali.

The complaint is based on depositions by Levinson, who has been on administrative leave since November, and other Shook, Hardy & Bacon lawyers, as well as internal law firm records, emails and Shapiro’s financial documents. (An NCAA enforcement officer investigating Shapiro’s claims of gift-giving to UM athletes sat in on the depositions taken last year.)

The firm’s lawyers provided advice to Shapiro from 2003 to 2009 on his investment in Axcess Sports & Entertainment while he was a UM booster, as well as on his dealings with investors who loaned him millions of dollars at high-interest rates for his Miami Beach-based grocery brokerage business, Capitol Investments — the core of his Ponzi scheme.

The suit, which names Levinson and Shook, Hardy & Bacon as defendants, asserts they knew Shapiro broke NCAA rules and Florida law by acting as an unlicensed sports agent who recruited Hurricanes players for the NFL, while providing them with cash and other gifts, such as parties at his Miami Beach mansion, his yacht and local strip clubs. Shapiro also claims he supplied some of the UM athletes with prostitutes.

The complaint also asserts that in late 2006, Levinson became increasingly worried that Shapiro would be unable to repay new investors in his grocery brokerage business because he was using their money to pay off old investors. Shapiro also used millions to pay off his sport-fishing yacht, a North Carolina golf course resort deal and his mounting gambling debts, according to the bankruptcy suit. Levinson finally asked one of Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s attorneys to determine whether Shapiro was violating securities laws.

A December 2006 memo issued by the firm concluded that Shapiro was violating the Securities and Exchange Act. But “Levinson sat on the securities memo afraid to deliver it and tell his best friend that he could be held criminally liable for violations” of the Act, according to the suit.

The following month, Levinson and other Shook, Hardy & Bacon lawyers learned that one of Shapiro’s business associates and an investor had reported his criminal conduct to the FBI. At that point, the law firm referred Shapiro to criminal defense attorneys Lewis and Tein, who had previously worked together at Shook, Hardy & Bacon.

Despite that referral and the internal memo, Levinson and other lawyers at his firm continued to advise Shapiro on his issuance of millions of dollars in promissory notes to investors to save his failing business, Capitol Investments, through 2009.

Shook, Hardy & Bacon “tacitly agreed with Capitol’s proliferation of its Ponzi scheme and Shook, Hardy & Bacon failed to ever deter Capitol from its additional borrowings,” the suit said.

“Instead, Levinson actually encouraged Shapiro’s additional borrowings, telling Shapiro that he needed to make sure to get more funds so Capitol could stay afloat as Levinson knew that if Capitol failed, Shapiro would likely be prosecuted for securities fraud.”