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Ethics complaint alleges lawyer billed NCAA for her whistleblower client’s bankruptcy depositions

Posted Apr 16, 2014 6:20 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A Florida lawyer is accused of violating several ethics rules for charging the NCAA for depositions in the personal and business bankruptcy of a client who wanted to blow the whistle on NCAA rule violations.

According to the ethics complaint (PDF), lawyer Maria Elena Perez offered to gather information for the NCAA during depositions in the bankruptcy of her client, Neil Shapiro, if the NCAA would foot the bill. Shapiro was on board with the idea, the opinion says. The NCAA and the University of Miami raised concerns about the situation, though the NCAA offered to pay for costs of transcripts if the depositions were scheduled in any event and were open to the public.

Perez had represented Shapiro in a criminal case that ended with a 20-year sentence for his participation in a Ponzi scheme. Shapiro had made donations to the University of Miami football program that violated NCAA rules, according to the ethics opinion. Because he felt the university abandoned him in prison, he wanted to report the rule violations to the NCAA.

According to the ethics complaint, NCAA investigator Ameen Najjar told Perez she could bill for deposition costs, but not attorney fees, and Perez never confirmed the arrangement with the NCAA’s legal department.

During the depositions of witnesses that could be helpful to the NCAA probe, Perez did not disclose her relationship with the NCAA, the ethics complaint alleges.

Perez billed the NCAA for service of process, copies, paralegal time, some legal work and bankruptcy training, the ethics complaint says. She inflated her time in bankruptcy training, billed for costs incurred before any agreement to pay, and billed paralegal time for the same services also billed at an attorney rate, the complaint alleges.

She billed more than $65,000 in total, though the NCAA did not pay the entire amount.

Perez did not bill for a videographer for two of the depositions because she invited HBO Sports to tape the proceedings, the complaint claims. “Thus, Respondent allowed a member of the press, HBO Sports, to appear at the depositions by invisible proxy, without having to appear on the record itself, and without any notification to the court, the deponents, counsel, or the NCAA,” the complaint says.

Perez was also accused of leaking a deposition transcript of Shapiro’s former assistant to the Miami Herald, “thus providing full disclosure of [the deponent’s] finances, bank account numbers, and other sensitive, personal information.”

The Associated Press, CBS Sports and the Daily Business Review had news of the ethics complaint. Perez refused comment when reached by the Daily Business Review, but the publication says she previously denied any wrongdoing.

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