University of Miami

Fumbles by NCAA helped lessen UM’s penalty, legal experts say

When the NCAA threw out a key chunk of its case against the University of Miami because some evidence was gathered improperly, the Hurricanes’ athletic program caught a big break.

Discovery of the tainted evidence earlier this year — obtained by rogue UM booster Nevin Shapiro’s attorney, whom the NCAA paid to question two reluctant witnesses in violation of its own rules — weakened a probe already largely built on the word of a Ponzi schemer.

Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said that and other factors led to the NCAA’s decision not to pile penalties on UM, especially after the Hurricanes had already given up two post-season bowl games and the ACC title game last year.

“The NCAA bungled the UM investigation, and the fact that it took so long for them to complete it did not help,” Jarvis said. “The NCAA is a weakened institution that has shot itself repeatedly in the foot over the last few years.”

Bruce Fleisher, a South Florida attorney who represented two UM alumni players contacted by the NCAA during the probe, said that part of the investigation’s problem was the credibility of Shapiro. “He was a convicted fraud artist who for whatever reason was trying to get back at UM,” he said.

“Another major factor was how the NCAA obtained information from Shapiro’s lawyer,” Fleisher said. “The NCAA should have conducted their own due diligence independent of getting information from Shapiro’s attorney.”

The NCAA’s 102-page infractions report, issued Tuesday, makes short-shrift of the discarded evidence against UM: Shapiro’s dual role as a $1.5 million investor in a Florida sports agency called Axcess and as a sugar daddy who also gave impermissible cash gifts to UM stars with a shot at the NFL.

That’s because the NCAA was forced to toss out almost all of that evidence in February – roughly 20 percent of the case — after conducting an internal probe of its own investigation of UM.

The NCAA’s admitted mishandling of the investigation triggered demands to drop the UM probe from university officials and targeted coaches — to no avail.

In 2011, the NCAA’s investigators had improperly retained Shapiro’s attorney, Maria Elena Perez, to use her subpoena power in a bankruptcy case to compel the deposition testimony of Axcess’ founder, Michael Huyghue, and former UM assistant equipment manager, Sean Allen. The latter had worked briefly for the sports agency.

“They really glossed over the sports agency in the report,” Allen told the Herald Tuesday. “They didn’t really delve into it.”

The two depositions, along with related sports agency records, provided extensive evidence of Shapiro’s use of Axcess to target top UM players as NFL prospects. After the NCAA’s debacle, their testimony and any related evidence could no longer be used, weakening the organization’s overall UM case.

But the NCAA infraction’s report covers little of that information — Shapiro’s cash gift of $50,000 to an unnamed UM athlete in February 2003 who, in fact, signed with Axcess. His name: Vince Wilfork, a star defensive lineman who went on to fame with the New England Patriots. It does not mention, for example, that Shapiro also claimed he gave Wilfork and his girlfriend a pair of Cadillac Escalades, instead referring to “significant gifts.”

The organization’s infractions committee found that the one-time UM booster violated NCAA bylaws because he was not a licensed sports agent, gave gifts to Hurricanes’ football players and tried to sign them up with Axcess.

“He arranged meetings with his partner [Huyghue], a registered sports agent, and the institution’s more high-profile student-athletes,” the report said.

The report, however, said little more than that about Shapiro and Axcess.

Internal documents of Axcess’ business meetings, financial records and correspondence -- obtained last year by the Herald — revealed that Shapiro’s sports agency targeted far more UM players than Wilfork. Shapiro, now serving a 20-year prison term for fleecing investors in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, was at the center of the recruitment effort.

Those records were presented as evidence in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case, which the NCAA was forced to discard earlier this year.

Among the evidence: When Axcess’ partners and employees met at an Orlando resort in May 2003, the agenda was dominated by a recruiting list of UM stars, including Wilfork, Sean Taylor and 17 others. The roster was based on “only those with current leads.”

As part of the agenda, Shapiro’s first name appeared in italics among Axcess’ four-member recruiting team.

Allen, who worked for Axcess and Shapiro after graduating from UM in 2005, told The Miami Herald that he gave some of his own money to potential NFL draft picks at UM while still hanging out on the Canes sidelines at games and practices. UM athletic department employees knew he worked for Axcess and did nothing to stop him, said Allen.

Allen told The Herald that Axcess paid for some vacation getaways for some of the team’s top players. The NCAA, though Perez’s deposition, also asked Allen about at least two trips that Allen claims he, Huyghue and UM quarterback Kyle Wright took to the Bahamas and, on another occasion, to Detroit for a Snoop Dogg concert in 2005 when Wright was a sophomore.

Internal company documents obtained by The Miami Herald show that Axcess was actively pursuing Wright and other UM players immediately after Shapiro invested in Huyghue’s company.

Marc Levinson, a Miami lawyer who went to Miami Beach Senior High School with Shapiro, advised him on his Axcess investment.

In a 2004 email, Levinson wrote Shapiro that he needed to discuss his role in the sports agency with the company’s founder at an upcoming meeting: “Nevin is the primary reason Michael [Huyghue] has established contact and relationships with UM players,” the email read. “Axcess seems to be doing much better at UM than anywhere else.”

But four years later, Axcess was out of business and Shapiro was about to be indicted on securities fraud.

The Florida Bar, meanwhile, also has opened an investigation of Shapiro’s attorney, Perez, for possible ethics violations. Perez has denied violating any ethics rules, saying she was only protecting the interests of her client. She did not respond to a call for comment on Tuesday.

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