The NCAA's probe of Miami's athletic compliance practices is ramping up yet again.
Only this time, the Hurricanes aren't exactly the subject of the inquiry.
In a bizarre and unexpected twist, it's college sports' governing body itself that is being investigated after NCAA President Mark Emmert acknowledged on Wednesday "a very severe issue of improper conduct" by former investigators working the long, complex Miami case.
The NCAA said its investigation was based, at least in part, on information that it should not have had access to, the testimony of those who appeared under subpoena to be deposed in the bankruptcy case involving former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, one of the most notorious Ponzi scheme architects in history.
The NCAA does not have subpoena power. Shapiro's attorney did, and used it — and apparently entered into some sort of contractual agreement with the NCAA, one that apparently either was not or should never have been approved.
"We cannot have the NCAA bringing forward an allegation ... that was collected by processes none of us could stand for," Emmert said. "We're going to move it as fast as possible, but we have to get this right."
Wednesday's revelations mean that the notice of allegations against Miami — the NCAA's findings of wrongdoing, a document that was nearly completed and was expected to be released by the end of this week — will be delayed for at least a couple more weeks, if not longer. The long-term ramifications could be more damning for the NCAA, especially if the outside investigator they have commissioned to look into the mess finds more problems.
The NCAA did not name the attorney involved, whom Emmert only referred to as "she." The NCAA said it would not confirm that it was Maria Elena Perez, a Miami graduate and Shapiro's longtime defense attorney.
Perez did not respond to telephone or email messages. A person in her office said the attorney was working in New York and would be forwarded requests for comment.
"As we have done since the beginning, we will continue to work with the NCAA and now with their outside investigator hoping for a swift resolution of the investigation and our case," Miami President Donna Shalala said.
Emmert said two depositions are involved in this allegation of improper conduct by former enforcement-office staffers. One of those two depositions was given Dec. 19, 2011, by former Miami equipment-room staffer Sean Allen — who has been linked to Shapiro and many of the allegations that he made against the university.
Among the questions Allen was asked in that deposition:
— "Did you ever witness Mr. Shapiro paying any money to any University of Miami football or basketball players?"
— "Would it be fair to say that Mr. Shapiro did, in fact, confer various financial benefits on the University of Miami Athletic Program and its players?"
— "Did you ever overhear any of the coaches or any other staff for the University of Miami providing Mr. Shapiro with inside information regarding, you know, the condition of any particular athlete for the purposes of Mr. Shapiro's gambling?"
It's unknown which of Allen's answers caught the NCAA investigators' attention.
What is known publicly now, and has been suspected by some for months, is that those investigators never should have known those questions were asked.
"How in the world can you get this far without it being recognized that this was an inappropriate way to proceed?" Emmert asked.
That's the question that the NCAA wants answered, and fast.
Emmert spoke angrily at times during a half-hour conference call to discuss the findings, in which he revealed that he briefed the NCAA's executive committee and the Division I board presidents with some information about the Miami matter. He said he developed a better understanding of what went on in the days that followed, which led to the hiring of Kenneth L. Wainstein of the firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP to conduct the external review of what happened.
Wainstein, Emmert said, will begin his probe on Thursday, with the NCAA hoping that he can finish within two weeks.
"We want to make sure that any evidence that's brought forward is appropriately collected and it has the integrity that we expect and demand," Emmert said.
It was part of a stunning day for Hurricane athletics: The 25th-ranked men's basketball team routed No. 1 Duke later Wednesday, 90-63.
Emmert said the NCAA was trying to find out why part of the investigation was based on depositions specific to the bankruptcy case against Shapiro, who will have to repay $82.7 million to his victims as part of his sentence. And the timing of this also is curious. Several people who were to be named in the NCAA's notice of allegations against Miami have been told that the document was in the final stages of preparation — and one person who spoke with the AP said at least one person who was to have faced a charge of wrongdoing was told the letter was scheduled for delivery to Miami on Tuesday.
Now it's anyone's guess when that will happen.
Emmert said the NCAA learned of the alleged misconduct, in part, through legal bills presented by Shapiro's attorney for work that was not properly approved by the organization's general counsel's office.
"One of the questions that has to be answered, unequivocally, is what was the nature of that contractual arrangement and what was all the activity that that individual was involved with," Emmert said. "There is some uncertainty about all of that and it's one of the first orders of business for the firm that we've hired to investigate."
The Hurricanes' athletic compliance practices have been probed by the NCAA for nearly two years. Allegations of wrongdoing involving Miami's football and men's basketball programs became widely known in August 2011 when Yahoo Sports published accusations brought by Shapiro, who is serving a 20-year term in federal prison for masterminding a $930 million Ponzi scheme.
Miami has self-imposed two football postseason bans in response to the investigation. The Hurricanes also would have played in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game this past season, meaning they could have qualified for the Orange Bowl.
"In my two-and-a-half years I've certainly never seen anything like this, and don't want to see it again," Emmert said.