TIME PASSES slowly in Oakdale, La., and more slowly still at the Federal Correctional Institution on the fringe of town. The guards there know their college football, and even if they see the sport through LSU lenses, most of them quickly recognized inmate #61311--050 when he arrived in September 2011. "Everyone says the Louisiana Purchase was a steal of a deal," says Nevin Shapiro, who's serving a 20-year sentence for his role in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of $930 million. "After 20 months in the state, I'd say the French pulled the heist on the U.S. government."
Humor like that helps sustain the most notorious college booster in history. In February 2011, Shapiro first began serving up to the NCAA one of the most extensive and apparently straightforward infraction cases ever. He turned over a trove of phone records, bank statements, credit-card receipts and photos to support his claims that between 2002 and '10 he supplied cash, cars, meals, drinks, junkets or gifts to more than 100 football and men's basketball players at Miami, whose teams he had cheered for since he moved to South Florida from Brooklyn at age six. He said he doled out cash bounties and performance bonuses for everything from violent hits to celebration penalties; entertained players at his $6.1 million Miami Beach home and on his yacht, All Axcess; colluded with coaches to pay recruits; supplied prostitutes to players; and lured a half-dozen clients from the Hurricanes' roster for Axcess Sports & Entertainment, the agency in which he held a 30% stake. From Jet Ski joyrides with players in Biscayne Bay to the stripper pole he measured for his luxury box at Sun Life Stadium, Shapiro's heyday reads like a Carl Hiaasen fever dream, and it didn't end until his Chapter 7 bankruptcy and subsequent guilty plea to charges of money laundering and securities fraud in September 2010. His felonious finances had nothing to do with the Miami athletic program—except that they helped bankroll his life as a booster. "[The media are] making a big deal about an Auburn coach giving a player $400," says the 44-year-old Shapiro, referring to a recent report on the sports website Roopstigo.com with that allegation. "That wouldn't even cover the valet for the first 10 guys I'd bring into a club—without the tip."
Bitter at how quickly most Hurricanes abandoned him after his fall, Shapiro shared his story with Yahoo! Sports, which corroborated many of his most damning allegations in an August 2011 report, leading Miami to impose sanctions on itself. Shapiro recalls the day that the NCAA enforcement reps originally assigned to the Miami case, Rich Johanningmeier and Ameen Najjar, were about to cross the threshold of a conference room to meet with him for the first time. "If you guys aren't ready to make history," Shapiro says he told them, "don't enter."
Yet that breakaway slam dunk of a case caromed off the back rim. First Johanningmeier, who had conducted the first 50 hours of interviews with Shapiro, retired from enforcement last spring at 69. Then Najjar, working for a division recently pledged to using a faster timetable and what it called "innovative techniques" to process cases, ignored the advice of the legal department and engineered what he would later call "a way around" to get sworn testimony. Because the NCAA lacks subpoena power, Najjar contracted with Shapiro's lawyer in the bankruptcy case, Maria Elena Perez, to pose questions to two of the booster's former associates who had not been cooperating with the NCAA. Najjar was fired seven months later. NCAA president Mark Emmert condemned the "shocking affair" and ordered up an independent investigation that resulted in the firing of enforcement chief Julie Lach, who had failed to forestall the arrangement with Perez.
News of Perez's role broke in January, months after NCAA management first became aware of it, and just as staffers were stuffing envelopes with Miami's notice of allegations. The NCAA quickly unstuffed those envelopes and dropped any charges based on information gathered from the two depositions. Nonetheless, in February the NCAA sent to Coral Gables allegations that reportedly document some $170,000 in impermissible benefits. Miami then served the NCAA with a motion to dismiss the case entirely. The NCAA turned the petition down, but the lesser charges have Shapiro regretting his choice to turn Miami in. "I thought I was dealing with the FBI," he says. "Instead I was dealing with a bunch of clowns. I gave the NCAA the body, the weapon and the DNA evidence on a platter, and they found a way to screw this up."
The NCAA committee on infractions takes up the Miami matter this week and is expected to announce its findings this summer. But regardless of what happens, the Miami case offers a glimpse into the troubled tenure of Emmert, 60, who has struggled to pass ambitious reforms since taking over in October 2010. It reveals chronic dysfunction in the enforcement division. And it presents the committee with a lose-lose proposition. If the school gets off without further penalties, the current level of cheating in college sports—"a free-for-all," one former NCAA enforcement staffer calls it—is almost certain to continue. Yet if the panel hammers Miami, it will do so after the NCAA's bumbling did more to taint the case than even the flaws of its lead witness did.
IN MARCH, Shapiro reached out to SI to discuss the Miami case and his dealings with the NCAA. SI sent a writer to Oakdale (the prison that housed Shapiro before he was moved to another low-security facility, in Butner, N.C.) in part because Yahoo! had found evidence to support many of his most damning charges. Shapiro supplied SI with documents, from e-mails to bank records, to support several new claims; in the meantime Johanningmeier told SI that he had found Shapiro to be substantially truthful.
During two five-hour conversations in prison, and follow-up e-mails and phone calls, Shapiro regarded his humble circumstances as karmic payback for how large he had once lived. "I had enough money at age 34 to retire," said Shapiro, who's scheduled to be released in 2027. "I ran my life like a circus ... and that lifestyle and behavior led me directly to where I sit today." But his comments usually had a more defiant tone. As he put it, "Somebody will have to answer for all this, because I will not go away."
In a letter he wrote to Emmert last year, Shapiro questioned whether his once beloved Miami will receive what he says it deserves: "the worst punishment ever handed down in the history of the NCAA." He points to an e-mail he received from Najjar shortly after his dismissal, filed in connection with Shapiro's fraud case, in which the former Indianapolis cop complains that his superiors "simply want to get the case done, even if it is half or only one quarter done. I don't know if it is simply to meet some arbitrary time line or the upper levels are trying to save Miami. I suspect it's the latter." Later, in another e-mail, Najjar writes, "Keep the pressure on those SOBs! Don't let them get away with anything"—with Shapiro taking "those SOBs" as a reference to the NCAA and Miami.
Najjar declined to speak to SI. But in several phone calls, Shapiro says, Najjar told him that he feared the case was being handled "president to president," between Emmert and Miami president Donna Shalala. A spokesman for Shalala said she wouldn't comment until the case is complete. Emmert declined to speak to SI, but his spokesman, Bob Williams, says any discussions Emmert might have had with university leaders, "from a process standpoint, not a detail or investigative standpoint, seem reasonable to most people and were requested by our membership."