SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
While the Heat was steamrolling through the early rounds of the playoffs several months ago, Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and James Jones were learning something highly unsettling: They had been defrauded by a con artist who presented himself as a member of a wealthy Pakistani family.
Miller ended up losing $1.7 million; Lewis and Jones sustained undisclosed losses.
So how could this happen to three Heat players?
The story began in January, when a business associate whom Miller trusted introduced him to Haider Zafar, a South Beach bling king who had courtside seats at Heat games but was indicted months later on 135 counts of fraud and money-laundering in a case unrelated to the Heat players. (Miller does not believe the business associate knew anything about Zafar's illegal conduct.)
Zafar, 35, identified himself to Miller and others as Haider Hashwani, and Miller accepted his proposal to purchase part of three of Miller’s businesses: his energy drink corporation, a clothing business and a mining company for approximately $30 million.
Zafar told Miller that his payment “was stuck overseas due to bank regulations and U.S./Pakistani politics,” Miller’s attorney, Andrew Fine, said. “Because of the alleged trouble getting the money into the U.S., Zafar said he would deposit the money in a Swiss account. But he never deposited a cent.”
Miller did not know that, however, because Zafar was convincing and “showed Mike fraudulent paper and electronic records showing the deposit had been made,” Fine said.
Meanwhile, Zafar told Miller that his family had ownership in a Pakistani company, Hashoo Group, and “because Mike was such a good guy, they would let him put his money into their private investment fund. He claimed it was a high-interest yield,” Fine said.
In reality, Zafar was not involved in Hashoo Group, which is a large conglomerate in Pakistan.
And here was the catch: Zafar told Miller in February that he must deposit a minimum of $2 million to participate in the investment fund and do it within a few days. Miller agreed.
“Mike had to collect it from different places,” Fine said. “People might ask, ‘Why was Mike putting money into this guy when money isn’t coming in?’ Mike was looking at bank statements that looked real. Zafar was good at forging bank statements.
“Mike thought the money Zafar had promised to invest was sitting in an account in Europe and earning money. That’s why he invested with Zafar.”
In April, Miller hired Fine, a Raleigh-N.C., based attorney, to explore how Zafar could transfer the money he claimed he invested in Miller’s businesses into a U.S. bank account.
On the morning the Heat closed out Milwaukee in its first-round series (a game that Miller started with Dwyane Wade injured), Fine texted Miller with distressing news: He had determined Zafar was a fraud, had not invested any money in Miller’s businesses and that his family did not have a private investment firm that would offer a big return on Miller’s $2 million.
By then, Zafar already had sent Miller back about $300,000 of Miller’s $2 million, but portrayed it as a return on his investment.
In Miller’s mind, final proof of Zafar’s scheme came two days later. Zafar told Miller that his family wanted to develop real estate, and because Zafar said his money was tied up overseas, Miller agreed to put up a $250,000 deposit for land in a residential area on Hillsboro Beach in Broward, overlooking the Atlantic. Zafar spoke of building condominiums there.
When Zafar couldn’t close on the deal by that April 30 deadline, Miller knew Zafar was a scam artist.
“Mike was pretty calm about it,” Fine said. “He was more concerned with what the Heat had to do in the playoffs than his own personal issues. Within three or four days, Zafar realized everyone was on to him and texted players, maintaining he was going to make good on all the money he owed. He never did.”
Miller, who now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies, saw Zafar a couple of times after that but did not confront him because he figured he could deal with it after the playoffs, Fine said.
Fine had no comment on Jones, whom he also represents, or Lewis. Jones and Lewis struck their own deals with Zafar, who made himself visible around the team and on South Beach, according to a source.
The feds are investigating the case involving the Heat players, but charges have not been filed. Fine said in an effort to recoup more money for Miller, he is searching for Zafar’s assets: “I believe he has either hidden the assets or spent all the money.”
Zafar's attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Zafar was arrested in May in Ohio when police found him with an expired Pakistani passport, a handgun, 40 bullets and a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with more than $10,000. Jailed without bond, he now awaits trial on the fraud charges in an unrelated case.
Fine said it was understandable Miller was duped because “the guy was showing up in different high end luxury cars every day. He’s got a bodyguard following him in an SUV with fake watches. The persona he presented to Mike seemed convincing.”
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### Dolphins players adore rookie kicker Caleb Sturgis, not only for how good he has been, but how humble he is. Several teammates have approached him simply to commend him for his poise. After a field goal in Cleveland, Brown cornerback Joe Haden told him: “Keep doing that and you’ll be here a long time.”
### Among the many frustrations with owner Jeffrey Loria inside the Marlins, as expressed by one Marlins baseball official: “You’re making all the moves, so why don’t you just come out and say you’re the general manager, like [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones does?”
The belief internally is that Loria wants credit for the moves that work but wants to distance himself from the ones he suggests that don’t work (such as signing Heath Bell).
### One player said Loria this season visited the clubhouse a lot less than past years and stopped giving speeches. Wise move, considering his past speeches were criticized, and his popularity inside the clubhouse has diminished after last winter's payroll slashing.
### UM has decided to cut ties with linebacker Devante Bond, whom it once thought would be a key piece of this year’s defense. Bond had 24 sacks at a Northern California junior college the past two seasons but failed to qualify academically and enrolled at a prep school. UM is no longer pursuing him; Nebraska and California are among his suitors. Meanwhile, UM has no idea if elite receiver/basketball player Derrick Griffin will ever play here. Griffin is at a prep school after failing to qualify academically and has said he hopes to enroll at Miami in December.
### Next Saturday's UM home game against Georgia Tech was scheduled for 3:30 p.m., with ESPNU televising. ABC/ESPN deemed the UM game less attractive than the 3:30 p.m. Clemson-Syracuse game, which will air on ABC in part of the country and ESPN2 in the rest.
Please see the last post for UM-USF notes and postscripts.
### UM hoops reportedly received its second oral commitment from a power rotation player in two days: junior college center Ivan Uceda, who reportedly chose UM over Arizona State and FAU. He averaged 16 points and 10.7 rebounds last season.
### The Heat --- which hired Juwan Howard as an assistant coach on Saturday --- has 19 players under contract for camp (one below the maximum allowed), and former University of South Dakota combo guard Charlie Westbrook tweeted that the Heat has invited him to training camp, which would make him the 20th. He played in Italy last season.
### Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said new owner Vinnie Viola will allow a higher payroll (the team is $9.3 million below the salary cap ceiling), and Tallon expects to be more of a player in free agency next summer. Viola has such high regard for team president Michael Yormark that Yormark, who was promoted to CEO, has been allowed to become a minority owner in the team.