South Florida

Coral Gables lawyer faces suspension for role in NCAA probe of UM

Nevin Shapiro is shown on the field near the inflated UM helmet covering the tunnel entrance. The framegrab is from a video made at the University of Miami vs. University of Florida game in September 2003.
Nevin Shapiro is shown on the field near the inflated UM helmet covering the tunnel entrance. The framegrab is from a video made at the University of Miami vs. University of Florida game in September 2003. Handout

A Coral Gables lawyer who represented rogue University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro faces a proposed suspension for her unethical conduct during the botched NCAA investigation that led to sanctions against the school.

Attorney Maria Elena Perez would lose her license for 91 days for violating the Florida Bar’s ethics rules in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case, which unfolded while the National Collegiate Athletic Association investigated UM’s sports program in 2011.

Lawyers for Perez and the Florida Bar negotiated the settlement, which could be approved or rejected by the state Supreme Court.

Perez, 44, who was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2001, refused to comment Tuesday about her “conditional guilty plea” to resolve her case.

According to the bar’s rules, Perez would not be automatically reinstated as a lawyer after completing the proposed suspension. She would have to show she has been “rehabilitated” to be eligible to practice again, which could take several months.

Shapiro, who sparked the NCAA probe by telling the organization that he plied high-profile UM athletes with gifts, has been serving 20 years in prison for fleecing investors in a $930 million Ponzi scheme. Ultimately, UM voluntarily agreed not to compete in bowls for two years; in 2013, the NCAA put the school on probation for three years and took away nine scholarships.

But the investigation was significantly weakened after it emerged that the NCAA had paid Perez $18,325 for her help in questioning witnesses in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case — evidence that was used in the association’s probe of UM’s football and basketball programs.

In 2011, Perez used her subpoena power in the bankruptcy case to compel the deposition testimony of Michael Huyghue, the founder of a Shapiro-funded sports agency alleged to have paid cash gifts to athletes. She used the same tactic, the Florida Bar found, with former team assistant equipment manager Sean Allen, who had worked briefly for the sports agency.

The NCAA had no subpoena power, and neither witness had any obligation to talk to the association.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Norma S. Lindsey, the referee in Perez’s ethics case, cited her undisclosed work on the NCAA’s behalf and its secret payments to the lawyer as the basis for her professional violations.

Perhaps the most interesting detail in Lindsey’s report, however, is unrelated to the attorney’s ethics violations. The judge noted that the trustee in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case said he recovered an additional $35 million for investors as a result of the depositions conducted by Perez.

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