In an embarrassing blow to its watchdog image, the NCAA said Wednesday its enforcement staff had botched the high-profile investigation of the University of Miami by improperly conducting at least two depositions while working with an attorney for disgraced booster Nevin Shapiro. Miami has been under investigation since the convicted Ponzi scheme mastermind said he had provided improper benefits to Hurricanes recruits.
President Mark Emmert said he was disappointed and angry with the misstep, acknowledging he had not seen anything like this since taking the NCAA job 2 1/2 years ago. He said some "people" involved in this case were no longer working for the NCAA, though he declined to say who they were or whether they had been fired.
He said none of the evidence collected improperly would be used against Miami and that the long-awaited notice of allegations would be delayed until after an external review is completed in approximately two weeks.
It was an ugly stumble for the NCAA, coming less than a week after its annual convention resulted in another round of reforms intended to firm up recruiting rules and other guidelines. And it comes as the organization faces more than a half-dozen lawsuits that could reshape how it does business, including one challenging the $60 million in penalties levied against Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
"Of course it hurts, any nick to a public perception that's not favorable to begin with is a problem," said Jo Potuto, former chairwoman of the NCAA infractions committee and a constitutional law professor at Nebraska. "The public perception has never been really favorable to the process or the infractions committee and so this is another hit."
Emmert tried to reassure schools that the principle of playing by the rules extends into NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
"We can't just say it, we've got to do it," Emmert said. "While I have great confidence in the vast majority of cases, when you have something as candidly dramatic as this, you can't just offer words, you have to demonstrate that you're getting this right. The reason I wanted to get this out is to make sure that this is right. We want to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold others to."
What happens next is anybody's guess.
The external review, which will be conducted by former Justice Department official Kenneth L. Wainstein, a Washington attorney perhaps best known in sports for representing Gilbert Arenas after he brought guns to the Wizards locker room and confronted a teammate.
Wainstein will focus on Miami's case, but he will have the authority to investigate the NCAA's actions in additional cases, too.
The potential list could include the suit brought by former Southern California assistant football coach Todd McNair, who claims the NCAA was "malicious" in its investigation into his role in the benefits scandal surrounding Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frederick Shaller has already said he was convinced the actions of NCAA investigators were "over the top."
Wainstein also could look into the UCLA case involving freshman Shabazz Muhammad. In December, The Los Angeles Times reported that NCAA investigator Abigail Grantstein had been fired after her boyfriend was allegedly overheard discussing the case on an airplane. The NCAA has not confirmed the firing. The outside review could have potential ramifications, too, in a lawsuit brought by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett in the Penn State case.
This is not unfamiliar ground for the NCAA, and it could be that Emmert fears a lawsuit from Miami no matter how the investigation turns out. Former Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel won a $4.5 million settlement from the NCAA and university in 2005, saying he was wrongly fired for gambling in an NCAA basketball pool and failing to be forthright about it with NCAA investigators. Among other accusations, Neuheisel's attorney said the NCAA failed to provide Neuheisel's legal team with an updated version of its bylaws during discovery.
In this case, Emmert concluded something was wrong in the Miami case last fall when bills for an outside attorney showed up on an expense list, a hiring normally approved by the NCAA's general counsel. Emmert said it was not, and that's what initially caught the attention of those inside the Indy headquarters. He also said the person who had hired the lawyer was no longer working at the NCAA, making it more difficult to get information.
The fallout could lead to additional personnel moves, too, Emmert said.
Miami President Donna Shalala said she was "frustrated, disappointed and concerned" that the NCAA may have compromised the investigation. Potuto said she was surprised, describing the enforcement staff she dealt with as "open-minded" to investigations.
"I don't know about a rogue one or two people, but it is not at all representative of my experience with the enforcement staff people that I dealt with over the years," Potuto said. "Generally we found them (the enforcement staff) to be exceedingly fair to the point that we sometimes thought it impeded forceful investigations."
Just last week, Emmert told The Associated Press he was pleased that the number of salacious and high-profile cases that dominated 2011 -- a list that included the football programs at Miami, Ohio State and Penn State -- had dissipated, though he was cautious about another big scandal popping. Within days, the hoax about Manti Te'o's girlfriend broke, and Emmert was briefing two NCAA committees on the Miami case.
"The NCAA Executive Committee expects the enforcement program to operate within approved procedures and with the highest integrity," said Lou Anna K. Simon, the NCAA's executive committee chair and Michigan State president. "Although we are deeply disappointed in this turn of events, we strongly support the actions President Emmert is taking to address the problem."
What Emmert wants now is answers about how this "severe issue of improper conduct."
"My concern is that the policies and procedures are consistent with our values," Emmert said. "Whether it produces good information or no information, there's no way to cut corners on this. It's a very difficult task, but you don't do things inappropriately."