The first trial in the national college admissions bribery scandal got underway Monday as federal prosecutors told jurors that two parents plotted with a college admissions consultant to help their children get into elite colleges as fake athletic recruits.
The case is about ”lies to obtain admissions slots that were bought and paid for,” Assistant US Attorney Leslie Wright said in opening statements in Boston’s US District Court, where pandemic protocols were on display. The 15 jurors wore masks, as did all of the spectators and most of the lawyers.
John B. Wilson, 62, of Lynnfield, founder of Hyannis Port Capital, a real estate and private equity firm, and Gamal Abdelaziz, 64, of Las Vegas, a former Wynn Resorts executive, are accused of conspiracy to commit bribery and fraud to get their children into top-tier colleges.
“It was a sprawling conspiracy that extended from coast to coast,” said Wright, adding that some applicants actually played the sport in question, but others did not. “But make no mistake. Whether they played or not, none of these kids were getting recruited to play collegiate sports without the money or the fake credentials.”
Wilson 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 Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of Southern California as purported athletic recruits.
Abdelaziz, whose company, Legacy Hospitality Group, was involved in the development of the Bellagio resort casino in Las Vegas and the Wynn Palace in Macau, is accused of paying $300,000 to Singer in 2018 to have his daughter admitted to USC as a purported basketball recruit.
But lawyers for Wilson and Abdelaziz told jurors the men believed the payments were legal donations to the schools and were duped by Singer, the admitted architect of the bribery and cheating schemes who is now cooperating with the government.
“Why is John on trial?” Wilson’s attorney, Michael Kendall, said during his opening remarks to the jury. “Because Rick Singer is one of the great con men of our time. He specializes in stealing from rich people and he stole half of John’s donations to USC.”
He told jurors that Wilson’s son, who was admitted to USC as a water polo recruit, was a star water polo player in high school, and his daughters were high-achieving students who didn’t need an edge to get into elite colleges; one had a perfect score on the SAT exam and the other had a near perfect score.
Abdelaziz’s lawyer, Brian T. Kelly, told jurors that his client did not do anything illegal with Singer, noting that private colleges routinely turn to wealthy parents for donations.
“It’s not illegal to give money to a school to help your kid get in,” Kelly said. “Nobody ever said bribery to him.”
Wright told jurors that Singer will not be called to testify, drawing criticism from the defense.
“This case revolves around Rick Singer ... and now in opening statements the government says ‘never mind, we’re not calling him.’ Think about that,” Kelly told jurors.
Defense lawyers introduced the jury to Abdelaziz’s wife and Wilson’s wife and three children, who were seated in the front row of the courtroom.
Wright told jurors that Wilson’s children were good students, but Wilson wanted them to go to top schools and “did not want to take any chances. He wanted a guarantee.”
Wilson knew that Singer arranged to have his daughters falsely pose as sailors because he had a home near the water in Hyannis, paving the way for them to be admitted as members of the sailing teams, Wright said.
Singer began cooperating with the government in 2018 and secretly recorded calls with parents who had hired him. He pleaded guilty to a variety of charges related to the scheme and is awaiting sentencing. Fifty seven people, including celebrities, business moguls, athletic coaches, and administrators, have been charged in the case since March 2019. Forty six of them pleaded guilty, and one parent was pardoned by former president Donald Trump.
Wright said prosecutors will present evidence that Singer wasn’t honest with parents and didn’t tell them that some of their payments were going into the pockets of coaches and administrators, or that he was keeping some of it himself. Yet the parents were well aware they were illegally paying money to have their children admitted as fake athletic recruits, she said.
“The parents did not come up with the scheme, that was Rick Singer. But without them it never would have happened,’’ Wright told jurors.
She said prosecutors will play recordings of Singer’s conversations with parents and present e-mails they exchanged.
“The defendants are not charged with crimes for having donated money to USC,” Wright said. They were charged because they chose to participate in the fraudulent scheme, she said.
The first witness to take the stand was Bruce Isackson, a California businessman who admitted he paid about $600,000 in bribes to Singer to have his daughters admitted to UCLA and USC as fake athletic recruits. He also admitted paying Singer to arrange for a proctor to boost his daughter’s SAT score.
“Rick had a very strong personality; he was almost intimidating,” Isackson testified. “He made it clear there was one way to get into schools and that was his way. He made us feel that we needed him more than he needed us, even though we were paying for his services.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.