First parents go on trial in US college admissions scandal

The first trial is set to get under way in the Varisty Blues sting, which has seen dozens of wealthy parents plead guilty and has exposed the tawdry underbelly of the US college admissions process.

Private equity investor John B Wilson (left), who has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the Varsity Blues sting, is among a select few of the parents caught up in the scandal who have chosen to fight their case in United States court [File: Charles Krupa/AP]

The “Varsity Blues” sting exploded into public view in 2019, with dozens of parents across the U.S. arrested for allegedly paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their kids into elite universities.

Now, the first parents go on trial in Boston, accused of taking part in the scandal that revealed a tawdry underbelly of the U.S. college admissions process in which “donations” lined the pockets of middlemen and faked athletic prowess or altered test scores opened doors for the children of the wealthy to attend the school of their choice.

Jury selection is set to begin Wednesday for the case against John B. Wilson, 62, a private equity investor, and Gamal Abdelaziz, 64, a former executive for Wynn Resorts Ltd. Both have pleaded not guilty, and are among a select few who have elected to fight their case in court. Thirty-three other parents accused of taking part in the scandal have pleaded guilty, serving sentences that range from two weeks to nine months in jail. Four more parents are scheduled to go on trial next year.

“People are so desperate that they’re willing to spend huge amounts of money and risk going to prison,” said Daniel Golden, author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.” “The message that comes out of this: These colleges are incredibly desirable places to have your kids.”

Wilson and Abdelaziz face as many as 20 years in prison if convicted in what the Justice Department says is the biggest university admissions fraud it has ever prosecuted. Among those who already pleaded guilty are former Pacific Investment Management Co. chief Douglas Hodge, and actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who got their kids into college with fake athletic abilities or rigged entrance-exam scores. The sprawling prosecution also swept up college athletic coaches. One parent won a pardon from then-President Donald Trump.

The defense in this trial has signaled it’s likely to rely in part on the idea that parents didn’t do anything wrong, because making donations and trying to get children designated as athletic recruits was part of a system the colleges recognized and encouraged. Their lawyers also accused the scheme’s mastermind, William “Rick” Singer – who may or may not testify in the case – of misleading the parents into believing his approach was sanctioned by the schools.

Wilson, the founder of private equity and real estate development firm Hyannis Port Capital, allegedly paid $200,000 to Singer to bribe a University of Southern California water polo coach in 2014 to designate his son as a recruit for the school’s team. He’s also charged with later paying Singer more than $1 million to secure spots at Stanford and Harvard universities for his twin daughters as purported athletic recruits.

Wilson’s lawyer, Michael Kendall, didn’t return emails and phone calls seeking comment.

‘Widely Accepted’

In court filings, Wilson’s defense team has said he believed the funds were legitimate donations and that Singer assured him it was a “widely accepted” practice to help gain a student’s admission, with USC even thanking him for a $100,000 contribution to its athletic program. Further, his attorneys say Wilson’s son was a talented water polo player who played for the USC team. Wilson also argues his daughters were both outstanding students and would’ve gotten into those schools without help.

Abdelaziz is accused of paying Singer $300,000 and tens of thousands more to a USC athletic official to win admission for his daughter as a purported basketball recruit. Abdelaziz argues his daughter was a talented basketball player and that USC said $200,000 would go to a school arena for basketball and volleyball. Brian Kelly, a lawyer for Abdelaziz, declined to comment for this story.

The parents have said in court filings that donating to schools was an acceptable but murky way wealthy applicants can get admitted. They cite a spreadsheet kept by USC officials that classified some applicants as “VIP” because their families made major donations to the school, were friends or had some kind of connection.

The spreadsheet, which has the applicants’ names redacted, cites how one student’s family gave “$15 mil” while another listing said the student was good for “$3 mil to Men’s Golf.” Another applicant was identified as being a “close friend” of former USC athletic director Pat Haden.

While the judge in the case has said that “USC is not on trial here,” he’s left open the door for parents to offer evidence of the school’s “alleged corrupt admissions policy if it was known to the proffering defendant and somehow impacted his or her state of mind.”

None of the colleges or applicants in the case were charged.

Much of the defense may also focus on Singer, who made at least $25 million between 2011 and 2018 by guiding parents to pay bribes to certain officials and even falsifying the athletic profiles of the children of some of his clients. Prosecutors say Singer also sometimes boosted a student’s college board scores for a fee by hiring a test-taking whiz to correct the results.

Star Witness

Singer eventually became a cooperating witness for the government and secretly recorded phone calls with many of the accused parents. Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, fraud and obstruction in 2019. He has yet to be sentenced.

Prosecutors have not said yet whether they will call Singer as a witness and a spokeswoman for them declined to comment. Singer’s lawyer, Donald Heller, would only say “it’s the government’s decision” whether his client would testify and declined to comment further. Whatever the decision, the U.S. still wants to play the recorded calls.

Singer is the prosecution’s “star witness” on which the entire investigation is predicated, Kelly, the lawyer for Abdelaziz, said at a hearing last month. Prosecutor Stephen Frank countered, “We don’t view any one witness as particularly different from another witness. We will make a game-time decision of who we’re calling depending on how the evidence is coming in.”

The parents contend Singer is a liar, pointing to notes on his iPhone in which Singer writes that FBI agents told him to “tell a fib” and “bend the truth” when speaking to parents while the government listened in. In another, Singer wrote one agent raised her voice and insisted he get clients to acknowledge “a lie that I was telling them” – that their payments were not donations to the schools, but bribes to corrupt employees.

Turning a crime’s ringleader into a key cooperating witness can be a difficult sell to jurors, legal experts say. They may view Singer as more culpable than the parents, and instead see them as his unwitting victims. Singer’s bragging and his wheeling and dealing with parents, coaches and school officials may also make him a distasteful personality to jurors. In recorded phone calls, he boasts about his relationships with powerful people, citing the president of Harvard.

“I wouldn’t want to call him if I were doing this case,” said Patricia Pileggi, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who’s now a partner at Schiff Harden LLP. Avoiding a witness with “a lot of baggage” by just playing the recorded phone calls but not bringing him to the stand would be one option.

“It certainly makes sense from the government’s point of view to try to tell their story without Singer,” Pileggi said.

Wake-Up Call

The trial could last as long as one month.

The case has been a wake-up call for exposing the lengths that families are willing to go to get a leg up in the admissions process, said Becky Munsterer Sabky, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the author of “Valedictorians at the Gate.”

“Singer was a rat and he exposed the rat hole,” Sabky said in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, the silver lining about this case is that the parents who are on trial show us that character matters and the country needs to realize that admission to a school is not a judgment of a student’s worth.”

Andrew Lelling, who as U.S. Attorney in Boston led the office during the investigation, agreed, calling the case “a cautionary tale.”

“What the public should be saying is, ‘Wow, maybe we all need to step back a little bit and reflect on how much weight and unwitting anxiety we are putting into the name on the door of the university that my kid goes to,’” said Lelling, now a partner at Jones Day. “That is not entirely healthy.”

Source: Bloomberg