Maria Elena Perez (J. Albert Diaz)
The Florida Bar has found probable cause to move forward on a complaint against Maria Elena Perez, the Coral Gables attorney who the NCAA said it received improper information from in its problematic investigation of the University of Miami athletic program.
Perez represents Nevin Shapiro, a former UM booster and convicted felon at the center of the athletics scandal.
The Florida Bar investigated a complaint that Perez acted unethical in taking money from the NCAA for work—specifically attending three depositions—done as part of Nevin Shapiro’s bankruptcy case.
Working for the NCAA could give the appearance of conflict of interest, particularly if Perez was to implicate her own client, Shapiro, or if her information could be used to subpoena student athletes or university officials.
The NCAA said it improperly received information from Perez as part of its investigation that 72 student athletes received about $2 million in gifts and perks, such as paid prostitutes, from Shapiro between 2002 and 2010.
Daniel Rosette, counsel for the Florida Bar’s Miami branch office, informed Perez on March 14 that probable cause had been found against her by judicial circuit grievance committee K.
Francine Walker, spokeswoman for the Bar, said the next step would be the filing of formal complaint with the Florida Supreme Court.
The Bar provided copious amounts of material to the Daily Business Review—news articles, e-mails, phone text messages, correspondence, deposition transcripts and court documents—used by the grievance committee to make its determination.
Foremost was a January 2013 article about the disclosure by NCAA president Mark Emmert that the NCAA had improperly obtained information from Shapiro’s attorney. He called using Perez to obtain information as “grossly inappropriate” and “shocking.”
The main NCAA investigator in the case, Ameen Najjar, had already been fired because of his handling of the UM probe. Najjar wrote regular e-mails and text messages to Shapiro and Perez seeking information.
Perez declined comment Wednesday, saying it was inappropriate to comment on the pending investigation. She has previously denied any wrongdoing.
The Bar did provide a Feb. 11, 2013, letter addressing the complaint based upon a series of news articles.
Perez said in the seven-page letter that there was overlap between the NCAA investigation and Shapiro’s cooperation in recouping money for investors in order to get his sentence reduced. However, she said the news articles were “fairy tales” which she described as “simply false, bombastic and reckless statements based in whole on unsubstantiated conjecture and speculation.”
She also said the “purpose of the undersigned counsel’s relationship with the NCAA was not to provide NCAA subpoena power” and at all times she had Shapiro’s interest at heart.
“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,” she wrote.
Perez also denied providing the NCAA with documents that it could not easily obtain elsewhere.
Shapiro is serving a 20-year prison sentence for a $930 million Ponzi scheme perpetrated through his grocery supply business, Capitol Investments USA.
The NCAA’s investigation into UM was greatly compromised. In October, it finally issued the report into the athletic program, stripping nine scholarships from the football program for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Miami’s football team voluntarily sat out two post-seasons after news of the scandal broke in August 2011.