Lucky Strike Owner Sticking Up for Shalala

Co-host of fundraiser says photo showing UM prez with check doesn't tell whole story

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    The owner of the South Beach bowling alley where convicted Ponzi schemer and former University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro was photographed handing over a large check to UM president Donna Shalala at a fundraiser says the event hasn't been portrayed accurately. (Published Wednesday, Aug 24, 2011)

    The owner of the South Beach bowling alley where convicted Ponzi schemer and former University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro was photographed handing over a large check to UM president Donna Shalala at a fundraiser says the event hasn't been portrayed accurately.

    Brian Elias, owner of Lucky Strike Lanes, was the co-host of a 2008 fundraiser for UM's basketball team at the upscale bowling alley, where Shapiro handed over a $50,000 check to Shalala.

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    A photograph of the event, which shows a delighted Shalala examining the check as Shapiro speaks to the crowd, was one of several included in last week's Yahoo! Sports report in which Shapiro claimed to have provided lavish gifts to 72 current and former UM football players in the past decade.

    But Elias says the article's portrayal of the fundraiser is a bit harsh.

    "My opinion in reading the article is that Donna Shalala was accepting a check from the devil, knew about it and was just waiting for more money to come in," Elias said Tuesday. "It couldn't have been further from the truth." 

    Elias said he and Shapiro became friends when Shapiro began going to Lucky Strike to watch college football on the weekends.

    The Yahoo! report claimed Shapiro provided players trips to nightclubs and strip clubs, parties at his multimillion dollar mansion and yacht, cash payments, restaurant meals and in one case, an abortion for a woman impregnated by a player. It also claimed he paid for players to eat, drink and bowl at Lucky Strike on several occasions, though Elias said he couldn't confirm that.

    Elias said Shapiro wasn't scheduled to speak at the fundraiser and was there as a paid guest, but suddenly surprised everyone by getting up and donating the $50,000 check.

    NBC Miami has confirmed that account with an independent source who was there.

    Shapiro, who was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for orchestrating a $930 million Ponzi scheme, admitted in the Yahoo! report that the $50,000 was Ponzi money.

    "[Shalala] was as shocked and happy as the rest of us were, and if that camera had been on any of us we would have been smiling," Elias said, adding he doesn't think Shalala knew of Shapiro's alleged doings. "In hindsight, it's easy to look at it and misconstrue it."

    Elias said Yahoo! reporter Charles Robinson never contacted him about the story, and said he wished they had so he could have given the photo some context.

    Robinson told Canesport.com that a comment from the owner of Lucky Strike was "irrelevant."

    "We have confirmation from players who were in Lucky Strike with Nevin Shapiro eating, drinking and bowling. Confirmation where players implicated themselves and others. I am confident the players know whether or not they were in the establishment with Nevin," Robinson said. "Based on that, a comment from the owner was irrelevant. Whether he believes players were in the establishment with Shapiro or not - and he hasn't said unequivocally that they weren't - the actual words of direct participants take precedent."

    Columnists and bloggers are calling for Shalala to resign, and in the Yahoo! report, Shapiro says the photo of him with Shalala sums up the entire problem with UM.

    "The whole time I was out there rocking and rolling, they were just waiting for the big check to come," Shapiro said.

    Shalala couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but issued a video statement Monday, saying the school was assisting in "all aspects" of an NCAA investigation.

    "The NCAA has instructed us not to comment on specific details of the investigation. It's frustrating for us -- for me -- to be unable to speak more freely and answer questions," Shalala said, noting that the university "will move through the process thoroughly."