Two-and-a-half years after “Operation Varsity Blues” exposed a national college admissions scandal, dozens of wealthy parents have pleaded guilty to paying bribes to get their children into some of the country’s most prominent schools.
After expressing remorse for their actions, a host of Hollywood celebrities, business moguls, and athletic coaches were handed sentences ranging from probation to nine months in prison. Facing the possibility of serious prison time and the embarrassment of a trial, 46 of the 57 people charged in the conspiracy struck plea bargains with federal prosecutors and one parent was pardoned by former president Donald Trump.
But this week, two parents will become the first defendants to bring the high-profile case before a jury. The fraud and bribery trial of John B. Wilson, 62, of Lynnfield, and Gamal Abdelaziz, 64, of Las Vegas, is slated to begin Wednesday with jury selection in US District Court in Boston.
Wilson, the founder of Hyannis Port Capital, a real estate and private equity firm, is accused of paying more than $1.7 million to California college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer between 2014 and 2018 to help his three children fraudulently gain admission to the University of Southern California, Stanford, and Harvard universities as purported athletic recruits.
Abdelaziz, whose company, Legacy Hospitality Group, was involved in the development of the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Wynn Palace in Macau, is accused of paying $300,000 to Singer in 2018 to get his daughter fraudulently admitted to the University of Southern California as a purported basketball recruit.
Prosecutors allege the parents conspired to commit mail and wire fraud, and to commit bribery related to federally funded programs with Singer, who used the payments to bribe college coaches and administrators.
Lawyers for the two men declined to comment, but have argued in court filings that their clients believed the payments were legitimate donations. They contend they were duped by Singer, whose bribery and cheating schemes nearly guaranteed the children of his wealthy clients admission to their dream schools. He began cooperating with the government in 2018 and secretly recorded calls with the parents who had hired him.
“Obviously the government is going to try to paint a picture of parents exploiting an admissions process for their own personal gain,” said Robert Goldstein, a Boston attorney who is not involved in the case. “The defendants are going to argue that the parents were in essence victimized by Singer, a man who by all public accounts earned significant amounts of money through his own business operations. If there was a fraudulent scheme, it was perpetrated by Singer alone, without knowledge by the parents.”
While Singer, the architect of the scandal, will cast a shadow over the trial, it’s unclear whether he’ll take the stand. In a recently filed pretrial memorandum, prosecutors disclosed that they may not call him to testify. Instead, they may rely on recordings of Singer’s calls with the parents and e-mails they exchanged.
Legal experts say keeping the star witness off the stand suggests that prosecutors believe the conversations Singer recorded speak for themselves. But his absence also carries significant risk.
“You can bet the defense lawyers are going to absolutely exploit his absence, punch holes in the case, and ask the jury to draw all kinds of inferences about why he’s not there,” said Brad Bailey, a defense lawyer who has followed the case closely.
It’s likely that prosecutors are concerned that putting a cooperating witness like Singer on the stand “and actually exposing him to vigorous cross-examination, risks diminishing what they believe is strong evidence that can be presented independent of his testimony.”
Singer has pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and racketeering, money laundering and fraud conspiracy charges and is awaiting sentencing.
Prosecutors allege that parents paid Singer between $15,000 and $6.5 million to cheat the college admissions system. In some cases, he paid proctors and test administrators to boost scores on SAT and ACT exams. In others, he provided a “side door” to colleges by arranging payments to coaches who falsely designated applicants as athletic recruits, typically for sports they didn’t even play.
Prosecutors allege the bribes were often disguised as charitable contributions to Key Worldwide Foundation, a bogus nonprofit that Singer created to funnel payoffs to corrupt coaches.
Prosecutors allege that Wilson paid Singer $220,000 to have USC’s water polo coach, Jovan Vavic, designate his son as a recruit. Singer allegedly provided Vavic with fake swimming times and awards for Wilson’s son and Vavic presented the teenager to the USC subcommittee for athletic admission, according to court records.
Wilson is charged with filing a false tax return in 2014 for claiming the payments as charitable donations and business expenses. Prosecutors allege that Singer used some of Wilson’s money to make tuition payments totaling nearly $120,000 for Vavic’s children from 2015 to 2018. Vavic has pleaded not guilty to charges related to the scheme and is awaiting trial.
In court filings, Wilson denied the allegations and described his son as a good student and star athlete who had played water polo in high school and was selected to a United States Olympic development program training team. Wilson said he has been unfairly lumped in with parents who admitted creating fake athletic profiles for their children. He said his son quit the team after one semester because of multiple concussions he had sustained over several years.
In September 2018, Singer was confronted by the FBI, which had been wiretapping his phone for months. He agreed to cooperate and over several months recorded calls with parents at the FBI’s direction, according to court filings.
During a 2018 call, Singer told Wilson he had secured an admission spot at Harvard through a fictitious “senior women’s administrator,” who would designate one of Wilson’s twin daughters as an athletic recruit in exchange for a $500,000 payment, according to court filings.
“It doesn’t matter the sport at this point. She will figure it out and get it done,” Singer said. He told Wilson that his other daughter had been assured a spot on the sailing team at Stanford, according to court filings.
In total, Wilson paid Singer $1.5 million to help get his daughters into Harvard and Stanford, prosecutors allege.
Wilson, along with his wife and son, recently filed a defamation suit against Netflix for his portrayal in a documentary about the Varsity Blues case, saying he has been unfairly tarnished and is eager to prove his innocence in court.
In the Abdelaziz case, prosecutors allege that he conspired with Singer to bribe Donna Heinel, an associate athletic director at USC, to falsely designate his daughter as a recruit for the basketball team. While Abdelaziz’s daughter played basketball in high school, he allegedly worked with Singer to inflate her athletic credentials, according to court filings.
In March 2018, Abdelaziz wired $300,000 to Singer’s charity, and four months later the charity began paying $20,000 a month to Heinel, according to court records. Heinel has pleaded not guilty to charges and is awaiting trial. Abdelaziz’s daughter did not join the USC basketball team.
US District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, who is presiding over the upcoming trial, recently rejected a defense motion seeking to prevent prosecutors from presenting evidence about the income, wealth, spending or lifestyle of Wilson and Abdelaziz. He ruled that the evidence may be relevant by showing the parents “were motivated to have their children admitted into elite universities so that they could maintain or improve their status in the community.”
Gorton cautioned that prosecutors “will not be allowed to dwell on this issue” or make inflammatory statements regarding their wealth and lifestyle. He said he would ask potential jurors during jury selection “whether they have something against rich people.”
Wilson had rented a world-renowned, 17th-century palace in France for his 60th birthday celebration and invited Singer during a 2018 phone call, according to court filings.
Wilson: “I rented out Versailles.”
Singer: “Oh, my God. You’re crazy,”
Wilson: “I know. A black-tie party there. So you’ll have to come.”
Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at New York-based Fair Test, said the trial is largely anticlimactic. The impact of the case came in 2019 when the arrests of more than 50 people exposed the extent to which wealth influences college admissions.
“It cast a bright light on what many counselors and parents of low-income students have known forever, that getting into highly rejective universities is perhaps as much about who you know as it is about what you know,” Bello said.
Since then, 46 people have pled guilty, including 33 parents and coaches from Yale, Stanford, USC, UCLA, and the University of Texas. Some are awaiting sentencing, but most have already served time, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for paying Singer $15,000 to rig her daughter’s SAT exam. Loughlin served two months in prison and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, served five months for paying $500,000 to have their two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California as crew recruits, even though neither of them were rowers.
Singer, while free on bail, enrolled in an online PhD program in psychology at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, according to court filings.
Bello said the sentences for all of those who pled guilty were too low to deter others from using their wealth to game the system.
“What in all of the fallout from this prevents the next person from meeting the next Rick Singer who convinces him that he has a slightly more legal way to do this and a more quiet way so there’s less risk involved?” Bello asked.