Miami tobacco litigator Marc Levinson knew his childhood friend and client, Nevin Shapiro, was a University of Miami athletic booster, as well as a compulsive gambler.
A Dec. 17 lawsuit filed by the bankruptcy trustee for Shapiro’s defunct company against Levinson’s law firm, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, alleged Levinson helped Shapiro pursue his company’s $930 million grocery distribution fraud.
In a deposition by the bankruptcy trustee’s law partner, Levinson acknowledged helping Shapiro buy a sports agency.
Florida law forbids athletic boosters from going into the business of representing athletes, according to the deposition taken in the bankruptcy case of Shapiro’s Capitol Investments USA Inc.
Shapiro admits he used money from his Ponzi scheme to shower gifts on UM athletes, sparking an NCAA investigation into the school’s program.
But Levinson denied in the Oct. 8-9, 2012, deposition that he knew Shapiro engaged in anything illegal. Levinson had received a $5,000 origination fee for bringing in Shapiro as a client.
"I was in shock," Levinson said of Shapiro’s arrest. "I had no reason to believe that he was involved in anything of that nature."
The court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, Joel Tabas, a partner at Tabas, Freedman, Soloff, Brown & Rigali in Miami, didn’t believe Levinson.
The 92-page negligence suit filed against Shook Hardy contains accusations of illegal gambling, parties attended by prostitutes and allegations that the firm facilitated Shapiro’s scam, which collapsed in 2010. It also claims Ponzi money was used to buy the sports agency in 2003 with advice from the law firm.
The trustee is seeking more than $50 million in damages, said Gary Freedman, who represents Tabas and is a partner at their firm.
Shook Hardy said last week that it would "diligently defend" itself in the case.
Because of Shapiro’s allegations, the University of Miami football team voluntarily declined to participate in two post-season bowl appearances. It also bypassed the opportunity to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game this past season in the hopes of mitigating any future punishment by the NCAA.
The association’s investigation into the Coral Gables school’s athletic program was derailed last month when the NCAA turned inward to examine its own investigators. They are reported to have paid Shapiro’s criminal defense attorney, Maria Elena Perez, for her help, which is violation of its own rules.
‘NOT MY EXPERTISE’
Much of the first day of Levinson’s two-day deposition dealt with how he paved the way for Shapiro to acquire Axcess Sports & Entertainment. Levinson said the firm did little or nothing to research state law on the agency purchase.
"Were you ever concerned that anything Nevin Shapiro was doing was in violation of the NCAA rules and regulations?" Freedman asked.
Levinson said it never crossed his mind. They were childhood soccer buddies, Shapiro hosted Levinson’s bachelor party and the trustee’s suit claims they partied together with UM athletes.
"So the fact that he was feeding players, taking them out on the boat, prostitutes were around, going to clubs, all of that stuff, you know that that’s generally a violation of NCAA rules and regulations, right?" Freedman asked.
Replied Levinson: "I am not familiar with the NCAA rules and regulations. That is not my expertise."
Levinson said he brought Shapiro to the firm to generate new business and land the $5,000 origination bonus. Levinson was overseen by his supervisor, Steven Naclerio, and partner Sergio E. Pagliery.
Tabas’ lawsuit referred to Levinson’s supervisor and a partner without naming them.
Levinson said he approached Pagliery about the sports agency because he had experience in corporate acquisitions. Levinson said he didn’t recall if he told Pagliery or Naclerio that Shapiro was a UM booster.
Levinson said he relied on Shapiro’s Axcess partners to advise him on the rules and was told Shapiro hired another law firm, Dewey, LeBoeuf & Lamb, to advise him on those matters. The New York-based firm filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012 and is being dissolved.
The examination of Levinson was attended by Maria Elena Perez and Michael L. Zonder, the NCAA’s assistant enforcement director, over the objections of Levinson’s attorney, Richard Critchlow.
Naclerio, who left Shook Hardy for Richman Greer, referred a request for comment to Critchlow. Pagliery did not return a call for comment by deadline.
Perez refused to say whether she was paid by the NCAA to attend the Levinson deposition. But she said she has worked to represent Shapiro’s interests in cooperating with the bankruptcy trustee in locating and returning proceeds from the Shapiro Ponzi scheme. Shapiro is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Critchlow, a partner at Kenny Nachwalter in Miami, was not happy with the NCAA official being present.
"He’s outside of the zone of folks that are involved in this," Critchlow said. "He has no claims. It’s not a creditor of either one of the bankruptcy estates."
Freedman said the examination was open to the public and the NCAA official was free to attend. Levinson repeatedly said he didn’t recall specifics about the legal work he did for Shapiro.
"As to certain matters we believe that Mr. Levinson was extremely evasive, and as to others where we had documentary evidence he was less so," Freedman told the Daily Business Review. "The complaint was built upon three years of investigation including reviewing tens of thousands of documents and taking numerous depositions and witness interviews. So Mr. Levinson can be as evasive as he wants, it will not trump the facts."
Levinson said he became of counsel at Shook Hardy after failing to make partner at the firm. He worked on the industry side of lawsuits against tobacco companies as well as on litigation arising from the 1996 crash of a ValuJet passenger plane in the Everglades.
Levinson said Axcess tried to sign former UM player Frank Gore, now a running back with the San Francisco 49ers. Freedman also asked whether Shapiro was ever seen with NFL players Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans and Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants, both former UM football stars.
The attorney said he did not recall.
Besides the acquisition of Axcess, Levinson said the firm helped Shapiro collect money owed from his Capitol partners and with another venture called China Glass. Shook Hardy also represented Shapiro in a dispute with an investment company and trying to sell his yacht.
Levinson acknowledged in the deposition there was opposition at his firm to assisting Shapiro on his purchase of Axcess, but he said he doesn’t remember the details.
Levinson said he attended a meeting with Shapiro’s previous criminal counsel, Guy Lewis and Michael Tein of Lewis Tein in Miami after referring Shapiro to the Lewis Tein law firm.
Levinson said Lewis Tein gave his wife a used Cartier watch from a Miami jewelry story.
"They basically said they don’t like to give out referral fees, money," he said. "What they like to do is give out gifts. What do you want?"
Lewis Tein, led by former interim U.S. Attorney Lewis and former federal prosecutor Tein, paid $400,000 to the trustee to settle a claim that Lewis Tein took Shapiro’s yacht to help cover their legal fee.
"We’ve been notified that we are witnesses so, in fairness to both sides, we really should reserve comment until we are called to testify," Tein said.