Reporter's expose on Miami Hurricanes was surreal journey

Aug 25 2011 - 8:08pm

MIAMI -- There was a moment this spring when a dazed Charles Robinson realized he had barely moved in 12 hours. Another day -- there had been months of them -- had been swallowed whole by the vast wasteland of paper surrounding him on his living room floor: the endless stacks of old phone bills, canceled checks and courtroom depositions from which he was trying to piece together a dark picture of athletic scandal at the University of Miami.

"I am sick of my life," Robinson said, though there was no one there to hear except him. Reflecting on that, he added: "I am losing my mind."

It would take 11 months before his work finally bore its poisonous fruit, a searing Yahoo! Sports story of illicit money, sexual licentiousness and official corruption that has rocked the world of college sports. The story, published last week, implicated 72 players and seven coaches from the university's football and basketball teams in accepting millions of dollars worth of cash, jewelry, trips, meals and prostitutes from a South Florida man later convicted of engineering a massive Ponzi scheme.

The Miami story was the latest in a series of seven blockbuster exposes of rampant misbehavior in college athletic programs reported by Robinson for Yahoo over the past six years. His stories, and the official investigations they trigger, leave behind a high body count: The University of Southern California had to return a national football championship, and its star running back Reggie Bush (now with the Miami Dolphins) had to return his Heisman Trophy. Coaches and athletic directors have been fired; employees have gone to jail.

The University of Miami story could take the highest toll of all. Because the allegations against the Hurricanes cover such a long period (eight years) and involved so much money (possibly millions of dollars), there's some speculation that if they're proven, they could result in the NCAA's so-called death penalty: the abolition of the football program. NCAA president Mark Emmert pointedly refused to rule out the death penalty last week and added: "If the assertions are true, the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports."

The story's impact doesn't surprise the 39-year-old Robinson, who joined Yahoo seven years ago after a decade as a sportswriter at newspapers including The Orlando Sentinel. What kept him from going crazy during the months he spent poring through the financial records of Nevin Shapiro, the diminutive Miami Beach financier now serving a 20-year prison sentence for his role in a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, was the potential enormity of Shapiro's disclosures.

"By the second or third day I talked to him, he'd said enough that I began to think, 'There's a chance this will be staggering,' " recalls Robinson. "But the problem was that he had no credibility. He was a crook. He had lied. He had stolen. He was in jail."

In fact, Shapiro started out not as a source for Robinson's story, but a target. In August 2010, Robinson got a tip that Shapiro, by then sitting in jail while negotiating a plea deal with federal prosecutors, had been a major University of Miami football booster at the same time he was a partner in a Jacksonville company of sports agents a serious violation of NCAA rules. To make matters worse, the company had signed two former Hurricane players as clients, something that reeked of possible improprieties.

Shapiro's partnership in the company, Axcess Sports & Entertainment, was easily verified through state records. After that, Robinson got on the phone with former Hurricane players he knew from his days covering the NFL. Their nervous, evasive reactions convinced him he was on the right track. By December, he flew to Miami to gather some final details and to talk to Shapiro's attorney, Maria Elena Perez, about an interview.

"I told her, 'Here's what we've got so far. We're going with the story. If Shapiro wants to deny or explain anything or provide some context, this is the time,' " he says. The attorney agreed to call Shapiro, being held in a county jail in New Jersey where he had nearly unlimited phone privileges, and let Robinson make his pitch.

Their first conversation lasted perhaps 40 minutes and immediately cleared up a mystery that had troubled Robinson: the seeming unlikelihood of a millionaire corporate sharpie hanging out with teenage football players. "He's a very fast talker, smart, funny, charismatic," says Robinson. "You could tell immediately how he was able to move in a lot of very different worlds. ... I realized a lot about his chameleon-like nature in that first talk."

Shapiro not only talked during that first conversation, he listened as Robinson ran down a list of facts the reporter had already assembled. The next day, Shapiro called Robinson directly. "A lot of reporters have called and said, 'Tell me your story,' " Shapiro told Robinson. "But you're the first guy to tell me part of my story. I want to talk to you some more."

That was the first of a blizzard of phone calls from Shapiro, 150 in the first month alone, many of them lasting for hours. The calls from Shapiro's New Jersey jail to Robinson's Chicago home got so expensive that Robinson bought a cellphone with a New Jersey area code so they wouldn't count as long distance. (Yahoo! Sports paid for the calls, giving the money directly to the jail rather than Shapiro. That, plus reimbursing photocopying costs, was the only money that Yahoo paid Shapiro, the company says.)

The new cellphone, which was red, quickly became a standing joke among Robinson's friends because it rang constantly, at all hours, and Robinson always dropped what he was doing to take the call. But he would never explain who he was talking to. "I'd be talking to somebody on another phone, they'd hear the red phone go off in the background, and they'd immediately say, sarcastically, 'Uh-oh, Big Secret Source is on the line, I'll hang up now,' " says Robinson. "When the story was finally published , I got 10 emails in the first 10 minutes from friends saying, ' Aha! So that's who was on the red phone!' "

Supplementing the thousands of phone calls were more than 100 hours of jailhouse interviews Robinson conducted with Shapiro during five separate trips to New Jersey. The most difficult came in late January. By then, Shapiro had abandoned his earlier rule that everything he said was on background, not to be attributed to him. He was willing to be quoted by name in Robinson's story. But that meant Robinson had to confront him with an ugly reality. "You're telling me a lot of stuff," the reporter told Shapiro. "But who's going to believe it? When people hear your name they think, Ponzi. Fraud. Liar. Scumbag!"

"People look at me and all they see is Ponzi this and Ponzi that!" retorted an angry Shapiro. "But there was a time in my life when I was a respectable businessman, and it wasn't that long ago. ... My entire life isn't defined by the world Ponzi."

"That's fine for you," replied Robinson coolly. "But the public doesn't owe you anything."

The conversation lurched painfully along, angry outbursts by Shapiro punctuated by awkward silences. Eventually, though, Shapiro agreed to supply Robinson with his records "just about every piece of paper connected to the past 10 years of his life." He even supplied passwords to his old email accounts, which hadn't been touched since the day he went to jail.

Eventually more than 500 pounds of Shapiro-related documents carpeted Robinson's floor. The very first Fed Ex shipment to arrive at Robinson's house defined both the drudgery he would face for the next six months, and the potential rewards.

"It was this huge stack of checks, huuuuuuuge," says Robinson. "I put it on my kitchen table next to a copy of War And Peace and snapped a picture to send to my editor. It would have taken a stack of about five War And Peaces to equal the checks." Yet within two hours of starting to sort through the checks, Robinson struck journalistic pay dirt: a $2,500 check from Shapiro to Clint Hurtt, the Hurricanes' football recruiting coordinator. The check was important support for Shapiro's claim that he gave Hurtt an interest-free loan of $5,000, half in cash and half by check -- a violation of NCAA rules.

"Here's a check from Shapiro to Hurtt that Hurtt signed and cashed," says Robinson. "It ties them together irrevocably. From an investigative perspective, it's pure gold. And that's what I would compare going through the documents to, mining for gold. You shoveled through a lot of useless dirt, but then you'd see the flecks of gold."

The documents that drove Robinson the craziest were the vast sheaves of phone bills. They verified many of Shapiro's claims to have known some players well. "Shapiro texted constantly, and when you find six texts in a single morning to a particular player, that's pretty revealing," says Robinson.

But the phone records were also maddeningly incomplete. Because cellphone records are so voluminous, keeping a record of every call and text, phone companies start tossing out some of the data as it gets older. Robinson discovered that he had virtually no records of text messages before 2009. And some companies discarded everything but long-distance calls after a while, which meant most calls between Shapiro and Hurricane players were conducted within Miami area codes.

Robinson was also flummoxed by the popularity among players of pre-paid cellphones, which are used only until their air time is exhausted, then discarded. The phones are sold at practically every convenience store and gas station, and there's no record of who owned them.

"So beyond what we put in the story, we had approximately 60 phone numbers tied to players or coaches but we couldn't prove it," Robinson said. "Shapiro gave us the names of well over 100 players he had helped, many more than the 73 we named in the story, but we couldn't use them. A lot of people assume we just printed whatever Shapiro told us. That's not true at all. We were pretty intense about what names were going to be in this story. We had to have something besides his word."

Documents weren't the only things Robinson used to check Shapiro's claims. He says he interviewed 21 people, including 10 former Hurricane players, recruits and coaches, who helped corroborate the charges.

"Everybody had their own reasons for talking," he says. "Some individuals who didn't have good things to say about Shapiro at all people who don't like him, don't ever want to speak to him again nonetheless said, 'Well, he's telling the truth about this.' They felt it wasn't right for all these players to deny 1/8Shapiro 3/8 after taking so much from him for so long.

"Among the former players, the conversations typically began with them complaining that the college football system is broken, that the University of Miami made a lot of money off them and they didn't get any of it. From there it was usually a short step to talking about Shapiro."

But someone was talking about Robinson, too. On Aug. 14, two days before he planned to publish the story, a rumor swept through Twitter that Yahoo! Sports was "going to drop the hammer" on Miami. Angered, Robinson nonetheless stuck to schedule, continuing his last-minute check and re-checking. "I'm still pretty disappointed in that," he says. "I don't know who could possibly have leaked it."

All Robinson's reporting was done under a shroud of almost total secrecy. Besides his secret red phone, He quit making travel reservations through Yahoo's ordinary outlets and even turned off the location on his Twitter account so nobody would know where he was. "There were only three people at Yahoo who knew what we were working on," he says. "We purposefully didn't tell anyone because we didn't want any leaks."

In the end, the leak came too late to affect Robinson's reporting, and it certainly didn't diminish the story's shattering impact, which has dominated both Miami news outlets and the national sports media for a week. The one person who may not fully comprehend the fallout, ironically, is the guy who dropped the bomb: Shapiro. Now in a federal prison with much more restrictive phone policies and only limited access to email, he's only dimly aware of the repercussion his revelations have had, at least on others.

"The first email I got from him after the story ran was the most poignant," says Robinson. "It said he's starting to feel at peace with the fact that he's incarcerated for the next 16 or 17 years. He feels like there's nothing he hasn't told. He said everything he had to say."

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