MIAMI _ Accused Ponzi swindler Nevin Shapiro had a knack for making prominent connections.
Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade took rides on Shapiro's $1.5 million Riviera yacht. Shapiro, now jailed on federal charges, boasted of giving Shaquille O'Neal a pair of diamond-studded handcuffs as a birthday gift. Two sources recall a photo of the seven-foot-one NBA legend bench-pressing Shapiro like a dumbbell.
And when Shapiro's sometime dining companion Carlos Noriega, the Miami Beach police chief, met U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at South Beach's Prime 112 steakhouse, Shapiro was there to get his photo snapped with the nation's top law enforcement official, a police spokesman confirmed.
"He would always say, 'I have to go meet this NFL player or this NBA player,' " said Adam Meyer, a sports handicapper in Plantation, Fla. who runs adamwins.com and said he advised Shapiro on sports bets. "If you go into the house, it's pictures of him with all different famous athletes. Dwyane Wade on the boat with their arms around each other. Shaq bench-pressing him."
Federal prosecutors say Shapiro used his wealth and prominent connections to bolster an image of a successful grocery broker selling stakes in lucrative import deals.
In reality, prosecutors claim, the 41-year-old's business existed mostly on paper for the past five years. They claim the scam cost roughly 60 investors at least $80 million.
Shapiro allegedly pocketed about $35 million _ enough to finance a voracious gambling habit, a $6 million Miami Beach mansion, and the personal bodyguards that were often spotted with Shapiro, according to court documents and interviews with people who know him.
Days after his arrest in New Jersey, a portrait is emerging of a man who pursued high-profile friends while trying to establish himself as a power broker in South Florida sports circles. He spent $400,000 on Miami Heat floor seats, has a student-athlete lounge named after him at the University of Miami, and talked of starting his own sports management firm.
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