It once seemed convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro's claims of massive corruption would kill the University of Miami's vaunted football program. But secret testimony by a key player in the NCAA drama makes it likely the school will get away with little more than a hand slap.
Sean Allen is a former UM football assistant who worked as Shapiro's personal aide during the time the fraudster claims to have provided players with cash, hookers, and cars. He is the most direct link between Shapiro's bogus business and the Canes.
But on December 19, the baby-faced equipment manager whom players nicknamed "Pee-Wee" told attorneys during a three-hour interview in a bankruptcy proceeding that he has no knowledge of Shapiro giving basketball prospect DeQuan Jones $10,000 or buying cars or hookers for football players.
"If he ever gave cash to Jones or to UM coaches, I didn't know about it," Allen said.
Neither Nevin Shapiro's attorney Maria Elena Perez nor a UM spokesman responded to New Times' request for comment.
Allen made a prominent cameo last August when Yahoo! Sports launched a heat-seeking missile at UM football by airing Shapiro's boasts about rule-breaking. But Allen's saga is one of the untold chapters in Shapiro's rise to Ponzi-scheme millions and disastrous downfall; although the former Canes manager declined to discuss his deposition, he spoke to New Times for the first time about his association with Shapiro.
Born in 1983 in Bergen County, New Jersey, Sean Allen grew up obsessed with football. His dad, a local IT technician, had season tickets to the New York Jets. At Old Tappan High, Sean made the varsity squad and, despite his slender frame, worked his way up to starting safety by his senior year.
But he was far from a star, so after enrolling at UM in 2001, he quickly volunteered as a student manager. He still remembers his first practice with the Canes, catching bombs from Heisman Trophy finalist Ken Dorsey. "I just couldn't believe it," he says.
When the Canes weren't playing, he spent most weekends at Charles Hadley Park in Liberty City, where he volunteered through Big Brothers Big Sisters to mentor young men. "He was a real good influence on us, actually" says Adonnis Mack, a Liberty City native who met Allen as a ninth-grade club wide receiver. "He'd give guys advice on how to make it to college, whether or not you were going to play football."
During Allen's sophomore year in 2002, he met Shapiro, a Canes hanger-on whose Ponzi scheme was just gaining momentum. "He came across as a really successful young guy who really loved the Hurricanes," Allen says.
In the deposition, Allen recalls a bachelor party around 2003 at a rented house on North Bay Road in Miami Beach that became a drunken bacchanal of athletes, women, and South Beach sycophants. "I had a bad feeling about the party," Allen says. "But I was 20 years old, so I didn't ask any questions."
When Allen graduated in 2005, Shapiro — who had recently pledged $150,000 to UM — asked him to join a sports agency he had started with Michael Huyghue, who ran the United Football League until last month. The effort fizzled after a few months, but the pair stayed in touch.
Then in late 2007, Shapiro hired Allen as his personal assistant. For the next 12 months, Allen watched Shapiro suck in tens of millions of dollars from hapless investors and then blow the money at Mansion nightclub, on a $1.5 million yacht, and on $400,000 in Miami Heat tickets.
Allen mostly worked at Shapiro's opulent $5.4 million manse on Bay Road, cashing big checks at banks around Miami Beach and downtown, and then delivering wads of cash — as much as $20,000 — back to Shapiro to keep in his personal vault. Allen never knew exactly where the money was going, though he knew Shapiro spent heaps on gambling. "I became a different person altogether," Allen says. "Even now, you can show me a stack of bills and I can tell you exactly how much cash it is. I got so used to seeing $40,000 in a pile I could eyeball it."
Allen quit in late 2008, about 16 months before Shapiro's arrest for running a $880 million Ponzi scheme. As things went sour, Shapiro increasingly bullied Allen over his deteriorating business. He issued daily telephone threats — inventing debts he claimed the former assistant owed him — and once even stalked onto a field at UM, where Allen had returned to work as an equipment manager in August 2009. The Ponzi schemer thrust his face into Allen's and screamed until players pulled them apart.
In his deposition, Allen says Shapiro was tight with Canes athletes. "Nevin was close to a lot of players at UM, there's no question," he says. Indeed, Shapiro told Yahoo! Sports that Allen was critical to his paying off athletes and breaking NCAA rules. "[Sean] inevitably became a really good mole in between me and the players," Shapiro said. "He became the go-to guy."
Though NCAA investigators interviewed Allen a few weeks after the story landed, he refused to answer most of their questions. He also declined to talk to Yahoo. But on December 19, Shapiro's attorney, Perez, subpoenaed him to testify in her client's ongoing bankruptcy case.
By then, it was clear how important Allen's testimony might be to the NCAA. UM was close to striking a deal with Shapiro's bankruptcy trustee to pay the court $83,000, eliminating any chance for Perez to subpoena former players or coaches. So the only possible witness to the malfeasance who would have to testify under oath was Allen. (The NCAA lacks subpoena power.)
During the deposition, Allen confirmed many parts of Yahoo's report, including that stud recruit Jeffrey Godfrey (who ended up playing at the University of Central Florida) visited Shapiro's luxury box and had dinner at Benihana on the schemer's dime.
He also confirmed that dozens of former players, including big names such as Devin Hester, Tavares Gooden, Jon Beason, Kyle Wright, and Orien Harris had all taken improper gifts from Shapiro, mostly limited to going to parties at Mansion or hanging out on Shapiro's yacht.
Allen also claims that in 2008, Shapiro gave him $3,000 cash to take three star recruits from Sanford, Florida — current Canes Ray-Ray Armstrong and Dyron Dye as well as Florida Gator Andre Debose — to Club Rollexx, a strip joint on NW 27th Avenue.
That same year, Allen says, Shapiro ordered him to take then-UM quarterback Robert Marve to a car dealer, where he looked at an Escalade. Shapiro had offered to front a down payment, but later backed out, Allen says. If Shapiro ever bought the car, Allen never heard about it.
Allen's testimony fails to confirm one of Shapiro's biggest allegations: that he gave a UM assistant basketball coach $10,000 to lure DeQuan Jones to the school. Shapiro told Yahoo that he, Allen, and assistant basketball coach Jake Morton played pool at Shapiro's mansion before handing over the cash. Although Allen confirmed the three had played pool, he told Perez he had no memory of Shapiro paying the coach.
It's probably no coincidence that exactly two days after Allen's deposition, UM lifted Jones's season-long suspension.
One of the lengthiest parts of the interview involved the checks that Allen cashed. Allen says, as far as he knew, the money went to pay gambling debts. "I ultimately thought [Shapiro] was a rich businessman with a serious gambling habit," Allen said. "That's where the vast majority of the cash I handled was going. There's nothing illegal about blowing your own money on gambling."
The NCAA has yet to rule on Shapiro's connections to the school, but without key testimony from Allen, little more than a bowl ban is likely. "There was truth in what Nevin told Yahoo," Allen says, "but it was blown way out of proportion."