NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks at the organization's annual convention… (LM Otero / Associated Press )
With the NCAA already under fire for its handling of recent investigations at USC and UCLA, officials announced Wednesday that they have uncovered potentially severe misconduct among enforcement staff in the high-profile Miami case.
The collegiate governing body said that staff members paid the criminal defense attorney for Nevin Shapiro — a former booster at the center of the Miami scandal — to "improperly obtain information" for their case.
"This is obviously a shocking affair," NCAA President Mark Emmert said. "It's stunning that this has transpired."
The Miami investigation has been put on hold while outside counsel conducts a review of the NCAA enforcement program. That review could encompass the two local cases.
In the fall, a lead investigator examining UCLA basketball recruits was accused of prejudging Shabazz Muhammad's eligibility before all of the facts were gathered.
More recently, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge presiding over a defamation suit portrayed NCAA officials as potentially malicious for the way they dealt with former USC assistant coach Todd McNair, who was linked to the Reggie Bush sanctions.
Though the NCAA has not given outside counsel specific directions other than asking for a broad review, Emmert said, "In that context, they'll have the opportunity to look into any of those cases."
Critics have long contended that the NCAA can be inconsistent and sometimes unethical in enforcing the rules of college sports. On Wednesday, Miami officials reacted immediately to the breaking news.
"I am frustrated, disappointed and concerned by President Emmert's announcement today that the integrity of the investigation may have been compromised by the NCAA staff," university President Donna Shalala said in a statement.
The Miami case dates back about two years to a time when Shapiro was sentenced to 20 years for overseeing a $930-million Ponzi scheme. From prison, he told of previously giving improper cash and gifts to Hurricane athletes.
As the NCAA launched its investigation, the university self-imposed consecutive postseason bans over the last two seasons, ending the football team's shot at playing in the most recent Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
At some point, NCAA investigators entered into a contract with Shapiro's attorney. Though the NCAA declined to reveal the attorney's name, Shapiro has been represented by Maria Elena Perez.
Investigators allegedly paid the attorney to question witnesses under the guise of Shapiro's separate bankruptcy proceedings. These depositions yielded critical information on the Miami case, information the NCAA could not otherwise have obtained.
Only later did the organization's leadership realize the attorney was on the payroll.
"We discovered it most directly when bills were presented later that year for legal work that had not been approved," Emmert said. "It immediately raised the question, 'Where the heck did this come from?' "
It remained unclear who — if anyone — among NCAA management approved the arrangement.
"One of the questions that has to be answered, unequivocally, is what was the nature of that contractual agreement and what was all the activity that [the attorney] was involved with," Emmert said. "There is some uncertainty about all of that."
Two investigators previously on the case no longer work for the NCAA. The organization does not discuss personnel matters, so it is not known whether they were fired.
Similarly, the NCAA has refused to comment on the status of Abigail Grantstein, the lead investigator in the Muhammad case.
Grantstein came under scrutiny when it was revealed that last summer, a man on a commuter flight from Chicago to Memphis, Tenn., said his girlfriend "Abigail" worked for the NCAA and would make sure Muhammad never played because he had broken the rules.
At the time, investigators had yet to interview the freshman's parents or view relevant financial documents. The NCAA initially ruled Muhammad ineligible, then reversed course after the plane conversation came to light.
Multiple people close to the situation, but not authorized to speak, told The Times that Grantstein has been fired.
In the USC case, the judge ruled in November that emails between an investigative committee member, an NCAA employee and a person in the organization's appeals division "tend to show ill will or hatred" toward McNair and that McNair has shown a probability that he can win his defamation claims. The ruling is under appeal.
As for Miami, Emmert said that no information gained through improper methods will be used in a future hearing, so the university could ultimately benefit from investigators' missteps.
The same could be true for former Hurricanes coaches — such as Missouri basketball Coach Frank Haith — now working on other campuses.
The NCAA hired Kenneth L. Wainstein, former Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush, to conduct the external review, which is expected to last one to two weeks. In the meantime, the organization will not move forward with a notice of allegations in the Miami case.
"We want to make sure that any evidence that is brought forward is appropriate," Emmert said. "I am deeply disappointed and frustrated and even angry about these circumstances."