A former water polo player at the University of Southern California testified Friday that Johnny Wilson was an active member of the team, except when he was briefly sidelined by a concussion, casting doubt on allegations that he failed to attend practice after his father paid to have him admitted as a fake athletic recruit.
Andrew Mericle, 25, who was Johnny Wilson’s college roommate, was the first witness called by the defense in the federal bribery trial of Wilson’s father, John B. Wilson, and another parent, Gamal Abdelaziz, who are accused of paying a California college admissions consultant hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their children designated as athletic recruits, part of the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal.
“He went to practice with the rest of us,” said Mericle, who told jurors that he and Johnny Wilson joined the water polo team as redshirt freshmen in 2014. They didn’t play in games but practiced in the pool six days a week, trained with the full squad, and traveled at their own expense to attend games.
Mericle said the coach, Jovan Vavic, who led the team to six consecutive national championships leading up to 2014, was “like the Bill Belichick of water polo” and insisted that all his recruits show up every day. “You were expected to be full water polo all the time,” he said.
His testimony bolstered the defense’s claim that Johnny Wilson, who played water polo in high school, was a legitimate player and contradicted the previous testimony of Casey Moon, an assistant water polo coach at USC, that he never saw him after the team’s first practice.
The elder Wilson, 62, of Lynnfield, founder of Hyannis Port Capital, a real estate investment firm, is accused of paying $220,000 to have his son admitted to USC as a fake recruit. Prosecutors have presented evidence that the money was paid to William “Rick” Singer, a college consultant who orchestrated the bribery scheme and used a charitable foundation he created to funnel $100,000 of Wilson’s money to the college’s men’s water polo team.
The defense has argued that Wilson was duped by Singer and believed he made a legitimate contribution to the college, which sent him a thank you note for his donation.
Vavic, who was among 57 people charged since the scandal came to light in 2019, is accused of accepting more than $200,000 in bribes, including $100,000 that went to the team and nearly $120,000 for his sons’ private school tuition payments, in exchange for flagging multiple applicants as water polo recruits.
He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Prosecutors say he presented a fake athletic profile for Johnny Wilson, fabricating his swimming times and athletic achievements, so a USC subcommittee would approve his admission as a walk-on.
Wilson is also accused of wiring $1 million to Singer in 2018, and agreeing to pay as much as $500,000 more, to help his twin daughters be admitted to Harvard and Stanford universities as fake sailing recruits.
Abdelaziz, 64, of Las Vegas, a former Wynn Resorts executive, is accused of paying Singer $300,000 to have his daughter admitted to USC as a fake basketball recruit, even though she failed to make her high school’s varsity team.
On Friday, Assistant US Attorney Stephen Frank grilled Mericle about Johnny Wilson’s athletic ability, noting that the athletic profile presented to USC claimed he could swim a 100 yard freestyle in less than 44 seconds.
“That’s darn fast,” Mericle said, adding that he didn’t know Johnny Wilson’s official time. The prosecutor cited a document indicating that Wilson finished the 100-yard freestyle in about 53 seconds during a high school meet.
Prosecutors allege that Johnny Wilson quit the water polo team at the end of the season because Singer had advised his father he could “move on” after one semester. But in a January 2015 email to Vavic, Johnny Wilson said he was quitting the team because he had suffered several concussions playing water polo and was worried about his health.
On Friday, the defense presented a document showing that Johnny Wilson suffered a concussion in 2014 after being elbowed in the temple during practice. Mericle confirmed that his roommate was unable to attend school or practice for a couple of weeks because of the concussion. He later returned to the team on injured status before he resumed practice.
During cross-examination, Mericle acknowledged that he was a close friend of Johnny Wilson’s and in college joined him on family vacations in Amsterdam and Chamonix, a French ski resort in the Alps, paid for by the Wilsons. He said he also attended Johnny Wilson’s 21st birthday celebration in Las Vegas, a lavish event Wilson’s father paid for.
“Is it fair to say the defendant, Mr. Wilson, has been extremely generous to you over the years?” Frank asked.
“Yes,” said Mericle, who described the Wilsons as “very kind” people.
Mericle’s testimony came on the 12th day of the trial, which is expected to go to the jury next week.
The case has put a spotlight on college admissions practices and the preference given to the children of wealthy donors. Prosecutors allege that USC is a victim of the bribery scheme, while the defense has attempted to cast the school as a willing participant.
Defense lawyers were frustrated Friday when they attempted to call two former USC officials to the stand. Steve Lopes, former CFO and COO of USC’s athletics department, and Ron Orr, a senior associate athletic director who led the Trojan Athletic Fund, refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Neither man has been charged in the scheme, but after questioning them privately, US District Judge Nathaniel Gorton said “there is at least a reasonable probability they would face some authentic danger of incrimination were they to testify.”