Shalala Calls for End to College Corruption Despite Her Own Ties to College Corruption

Donna Shalala happily accepting a check from Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro.
Donna Shalala happily accepting a check from Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro. via New Times archives
In the wake of the FBI's Operation Varsity Blues, one of the most sweeping probes into college-entrance bribery and corruption in American history, U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala today called for an investigation into nationwide corruption at top-flight schools.

There's a problem, though. She might be forced to investigate herself. That's because, when Shalala ran the University of Miami from 2001 to 2015, she directly oversaw a university that flouted national athletics rules — including some related to admissions — so blatantly the football program was almost trashed in 2011.

Amazingly, the University of Miami even reportedly has ties to this current FBI sting — the company at the center of the probe "donated" money to UM in 2015 and 2016. But according to the Miami Herald, Shalala is now calling for hearings on college admissions issues:
Notably, the scandal that broke yesterday — in which 47 people (including Miami developer Bob Zangrillo) were charged with facilitating massive bribes to colleges such as Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, UCLA, and the University of Southern California — was very much about athletics. According to prosecutors, parents were paying a middleman, William "Rick" Singer, to fake college transcripts, fix SAT and ACT scores, and pretend to be student-athletes when, in fact, the kids were nothing of the sort. Yesterday's indictments listed multiple cases in which major college athletics departments accepted bribes, sometimes camouflaged as donations, to pretend that entirely unathletic kids were members of collegiate rowing or water polo teams.

For example, Zangrillo, the Miamian ensnared in the scheme, allegedly agreed to pay $200,000 to Singer's "charity" and "donate" another $50,000 to USC's women's athletics department. In exchange, Singer promised Zangrillo that his daughter, who was initially denied entrance to USC and had failed at least one high-school course, would be accepted as a member of the USC rowing team. She does not compete in that sport. (After this story was initially published, Zangrillo released a statement to the media in which he said he regrets working with Singer and is "deeply troubled" by the complaint.)

It is frankly amazing that Shalala is now calling for hearings on this topic, because her time as president of UM is likely to be mentioned if they are held. Shalala was directly implicated in the exploits of Nevin Shapiro, the Ponzi schemer and UM athletics booster who ratted out the entire Miami Hurricanes athletics department. He revealed that, from 2002 to 2010 during Shalala's tenure in Coral Gables, UM athletes were being showered with all sorts of illegal and unethical gifts. Many of her employees helped further the very culture of college athletics corruption that the parents indicted yesterday tried to exploit.

Shapiro got caught running a huge, $930 million Ponzi scheme in 2010. While languishing behind bars, the violent, unstable, status-obsessed fraudster seemingly became enraged he'd been arrested. So he promised to take down everyone else in his orbit who also had unclean hands. Many people thought it was a bluff.

But it turns out Shapiro wasn't kidding. He leaked a ton of information to Yahoo! Sports writer Charles Robinson, who confirmed Shapiro had illegally provided "thousands of benefits" to 72 University of Miami football and basketball players. Those gifts included everything from yacht parties to prostitutes to abortion services for athletes who'd gotten women pregnant.

Yahoo! wrote:

A University of Miami booster, incarcerated for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, has told Yahoo! Sports he provided thousands of impermissible benefits to at least 72 athletes from 2002 through 2010.

In 100 hours of jailhouse interviews during Yahoo! Sports' 11-month investigation, Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro described a sustained, eight-year run of rampant NCAA rule-breaking, some of it with the knowledge or direct participation of at least seven coaches from the Miami football and basketball programs. At a cost that Shapiro estimates in the millions of dollars, he said his benefits to athletes included but were not limited to cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.
Said beneficiaries included Hurricanes football players who later became NFL greats, such as Vince Wilfork, Jon Beason, Antrel Rolle, Devin Hester, Willis McGahee, and Sean Taylor. The NCAA claimed Shapiro had doled out a total of $170,000 in illegal benefits to players, but that number sounds like quite an understatement.

Shapiro had a clear stake in all of this: He was hoping to sign Hurricanes players to his Jacksonville-based sports management agency, Axcess. After persuading UM players to (illegally) sign with Axcess, Shapiro hoped to rake in cuts of the players' extremely lucrative pro contracts.

Of course, this was all an utterly gigantic violation of NCAA recruiting rules because players are supposed to remain amateurs and avoid taking any money or gifts in exchange for their roles as student-athletes. (To be fair, it's a ridiculously unfair rule and student-athletes should get paid, but that's an entirely different story.)

The consequences were, at first, severe: The NCAA brought the hammer down hard on UM, and sports commentators questioned whether the Hurricanes football program should have been permanently dismantled after the cheating scandal broke. The NCAA ultimately suspended 13 UM players and stripped the school of multiple scholarships. In the end, the NCAA simply placed the Hurricanes' athletics programs on three years of probation rather than ending student athletics at the school.

This was, notably, all happening while Shalala was running UM. She has never admitted she knew about what was going on, but it's pretty hard to buy the argument she wasn't aware of at least some of the blatant athletic corruption permeating her school. Shapiro himself admitted that seven coaches were either aware of his illegal gifts or actively participating in the scheme. Moreover, Shalala herself was infamously photographed accepting a $50,000 athletics department donation check from Shapiro in 2008.

In 2011, after the scandal broke, New Times implored Shalala to "admit blame in the Nevin Shapiro scandal or resign." She did neither. In fact, she actively fought the NCAA's sanctions on her athletics department after her employees got caught cheating.

Amazingly, that's not Shalala's only tie to corruption at UM. After the Shapiro scandal subsided, another UM coach hired under her watch got caught up in a cheating probe. Men's basketball coach Jim Larrañaga began running the Hurricanes' team in 2011, when Shalala was president of the school. She left in 2015. And in 2017, the FBI unsealed a huge corruption case against seven men's basketball programs — the feds allegedly caught coaches arranging illegal recruiting payments between Adidas and top high-school athletes in order to ensure the kids signed with UM. Larrañaga has always claimed he was innocent, but the case once again ignited a debate over whether UM should even be allowed to run top-flight athletics programs.

In perhaps the most startling detail, Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright noted on Twitter this afternoon that the Key Worldwide Foundation, the allegedly fraudulent charity set up by Singer, "donated" $40,000 to the University of Miami in 2015, when Shalala was still running the school:

But now Shalala is upset about corruption in college sports.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.