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Suspension looms for lawyer in NCAA-Miami probe

NCAA sues University of Miami Attorney

A lawyer for rogue Miami booster Nevin Shapiro may face up to a 91-day suspension from the practice of law for her role in assisting the NCAA with its investigation into the University of Miami Athletics program.

Florida Bar Alleges Perez Violated Ethical Rules in Conjunction with Her Assistance to the NCAA

Documents filed by the Florida Bar Association with the Florida Supreme Court in the case of attorney Maria Elena Perez reveal that the a Florida Bar referee recommended the suspension, after finding that Perez had violated a number of ethical rules in conjunction with the information she provided to the NCAA.  The information Perez shared with the NCAA allegedly comes from interviews Perez conducted with witnesses while she was representing Shapiro in a bankruptcy case, the Florida Bar said.

Shapiro’s Improper Relationships With Athletes and Staff Prompted NCAA Sanctions

Perez’s former client, Shapiro, is currently serving a 20-year sentence for operating a massive $930 million Ponzi scheme.  Shapiro was a major booster for the University of Miami Athletics program between roughly 2002 and 2010, and it was his improper relationships with University of Miami athletes, recruits, and staff members that led the NCAA to investigate the school.  As fallout from the investigation, the University of Miami football program was sanctioned by the NCAA, including losing nine scholarships and being placed on probation until October 2016.

NCAA Admits Involvement with Perez was Improper

The NCAA has admitted that its involvement with Perez was improper.  NCAA president Mark Emmert said that, after the NCAA received a bill from Perez for expenses, it became concerned about the NCAA’s conduct as part of its investigation.  The NCAA said that Perez was improperly given a list of questions by NCAA enforcement staff during a deposition in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case, which case was aimed at finding money to return to wronged investors in Shapiro’s fraud scam.  The NCAA says Perez was paid more than $18,000 by the NCAA for her assistance.

Florida Bar’s Complaint Says Perez Abused Subpoena Power on Behalf of NCAA

The initial complaint by the Florida Bar against Perez was filed in April 2014.  In the complaint, the Florida Bar alleged that, in 2011, Perez used her subpoena power in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case to compel the deposition testimony of Michael Huyghue, the founder of Shapiro’s sports agency that was alleged to have paid University of Miami athletes.  The complaint also said that Perez used that same tactic to compel the deposition testimony of former Miami football assistant equipment manager Sean Allen, who worked briefly for Shapiro’s sports agency.

The complaint goes on to state that Perez leaked a copy of one of the depositions to the media, billed the NCAA for depositions that never took place, and lied publicly about her involvement with the NCAA.  Perhaps most shocking of all, the Florida Bar says Perez contacted HBO Sports, which agreed to secretly provide a videographer to record the depositions.

Perez Pens Letter in Response to Florida Bar’s Complaint

In a seven-page letter to the Florida State Bar, Perez said that there was overlap between the NCAA’s investigation and Shapiro’s cooperation in recouping money for investors in order to get his sentence reduced.  Perez said the news articles written about her alleged misconduct were “fairy tales” that Perez described as “simply false, bombastic and reckless statements based in whole on unsubstantiated conjecture and speculation.”  Perez also said the “purpose of the undersigned counsel’s relationship with the NCAA was not to provide NCAA subpoena power” and that she was acting in Shapiro’s best interest at all times.  “A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of the client despite opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience to the lawyer and take whatever lawful and technical steps are required to vindicate a client’s cause or endeavor,” Perez wrote.

Referee’s Report Recommends 91-Day Suspension for Perez

Despite Perez’s denial of wrongdoing, the referee’s report ultimately found that Perez had violated Florida Bar Rules 4-1.5 (fees and costs for legal services), 4-3.1 (meritorious claims and contentions), 4-3.4 (fairness to opposing party and counsel), 4-4.1 (truthfulness in statements to others), 4-4.2 (communications with persons represented by counsel), 4-4.4 (respect for rights of third persons), 4-8.4(a)(c)(d) (misconduct), and 5-1.1(b) (trust accounts), in relation to her assistance with the NCAA investigation.  In light of those violations, the referee recommended a 91-day suspension from the practice of law.  The referee also recommended that more than $4,000 in costs be assessed against Perez to compensate the Florida Bar for bringing the action.  As an interesting side note, the referee’s report found that through the depositions conducted by Perez on behalf of the NCAA, Shapiro was able to recoup more than $35 million for investors as part of his bankruptcy case.

Perez’s disciplinary case is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court, which is free to accept or reject the Bar’s disciplinary recommendation for a 91-day suspension, and could increase or reduce the proposed suspension.

Perez’s contentions that the two cases overlapped and that the NCAA was simply paying her as a third-party payor for her work did not hold wait with the Florida Bar or the referee.  Furthermore, Perez’s claim that both Shapiro and the NCAA knew about one another, and that this information “was a matter of public knowledge,” was rejected.  According to the Florida Bar and the referee, Perez improperly used her subpoena power to conduct depositions that the NCAA itself could not conduct, and that she was dishonest about her involvement with the NCAA in Shapiro’s bankruptcy.

Referee’s Report Raises Additional Ethical Violations Arising Out of Dismissed Appeal

In addition to the violations over her involvement with the NCAA, the Florida Bar’s Complaint and the referee’s report addressed other potential violations by Perez.  In relation to the other incident, the referee’s reports says that one of Perez’s criminal clients asked her to file a notice of appeal on his behalf, even though a condition of his guilty plea was a waiver of his appellate rights.  Perez filed the notice of appeal, but did not pay the filing fee because the client did not provide her with the funds to do so.  As a result, the appeal was dismissed for non-payment.

Perez thereafter resurrected her client’s appeal by advancing the filing fees from her own funds. However, even though Perez successfully reopened her client’s appeal, Perez did not timely file her appeal brief, and all attempts to cure the deficiencies in the brief failed.  Thus, the appeal was dismissed.

Following the dismissal, Perez’s client filed a pro se motion alleging ineffective assistance of counsel based on Perez’s failure to perfect his appeal.  The court granted the motion, finding that Perez had failed to provide competent and diligent representation in violation of Rule 4-1.1 (competence) and 4-1.3 (diligence) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar.

Perez “Happy to Put Matter Behind Her,” Lawyer Says

While Perez has not responded directly for comment following the referee’s report recommending the 91-day suspension, her attorney, Kevin Tynan, a former Florida Bar prosecutor has said, “She’s happy to put the matter behind her.  It lingered a long time.  Anytime someone is going to be suspended, it’s personally and professionally embarrassing, but you move on.”