fb-pixel Skip to main content

Trump pardons Miami business leader charged in ‘Varsity Blues’ college admissions case

Among the pardons bestowed by Donald Trump in the waning hours of his presidency was one granted to Robert Zangrillo, the founder of a Miami investment firm who’d been charged in connection with the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal.

The Zangrillo pardon was part of a flurry of clemency action taken by Trump in the final hours of his term that benefited more than 140 people.

The White House in a statement early Wednesday called Zangrillo a “well-respected business leader and philanthropist” and said his pardon was supported by “[industrialist] Len Blavatnik, [real estate developer] Geoff Palmer, [investor] Tom Barrack, [former Facebook executive] Sean Parker, [publisher] Walid Abu-Zalaf, [businessman] Medo Alsaloussi, and [Paul Manafort attorney] Kevin Downing.”


A spokesperson for Barrack, however, said in a statement that Barrack “had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Zangrillo’s pardon. He never intervened and never had discussion with anyone about it. All reports to the contrary are patently false.”

A spokesperson for Parker sounded a similar note, telling the Globe in a statement that “Sean doesn’t know him and did not make any request for a pardon on his behalf.”

Zangrillo, 54, had been slated to go to trial in September 2021 in federal court in Boston on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery, conspiracy to commit money laundering, wire fraud, and honest services wire fraud – aiding and abetting. He had pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors have said Zangrillo paid bribes totaling $250,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a transfer student.

Initially, legal filings allege, the plan was to have her admitted as fake sports recruit, but a coconspirator who at the time worked for USC indicated that she’d instead advocated for the daughter and placed her on “our VIP list for transfers.”


Zangrillo was one of dozens of people charged in connection with the scandal, in which prosecutors said wealthy parents paid bribes to the scheme’s admitted ringleader, William “Rick” Singer, to get their children falsely identified as athletic recruits at selective colleges, effectively paving their way to admission, or to facilitate cheating on the kids’ SAT and ACT exams.

Martin G. Weinberg, a lawyer for Zangrillo, said via e-mail Wednesday that the “legal team has no comment other than to confirm that Robert Zangrillo was granted a presidential pardon today.”

In a separate statement, US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling, a Trump appointee who brought the Varsity Blues case, said Zangrillo’s pardon illustrates the importance of the investigation.

“The pardon of Robert Zangrillo, who is charged with bribery and fraud, including having his own daughter knowingly participate in a scheme to lie to USC about her accomplishments and grades, illustrates precisely why Operation Varsity Blues was necessary in the first place,” Lelling said. “It is the highest calling of the criminal justice system to hold all people equally to account, regardless of wealth or privilege.”

Among the parents who’ve pleaded guilty in connection with the probe are Hollywood stars Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, as well as Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs and former PIMCO boss Douglas Hodge.

Material from the Associated Press and from prior Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.