The first two parents to stand trial in the nationwide Varsity Blues college admissions scandal were found guilty Friday of plotting to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to have their children accepted into elite schools as fake athletic recruits.
The verdicts handed down by a federal jury in Boston were a high-profile victory for prosecutors in a case that has cast a spotlight on the influence of wealth on college admissions and sent dozens of affluent parents to prison after guilty pleas.
Jurors, who after a four-week trial deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days, convicted John B. Wilson, 62, of Lynnfield, a real estate and private equity investor, and Gamal Abdelaziz, 64, of Las Vegas, a former Wynn Resorts executive, on all charges for participating in the bribery scheme orchestrated by a California college admissions consultant.
Both men were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery for paying William “Rick” Singer, who used a sham charity he created to funnel payments to athletic coaches and administrators at Stanford University and the University of Southern California.
Wilson was also found guilty of additional fraud and bribery counts and filing a false tax return for claiming a deduction for a $220,000 payment he made in 2014 to have his son admitted to USC as a water polo recruit.
Acting US Attorney Nathaniel Mendell said Wilson, Abdelaziz, and their families “enjoyed privileges and opportunities that most of us can only imagine,” yet broke the law to guarantee their children admission to their chosen schools.
“What they did was an affront to hardworking students and parents, but the verdict today proves that even these defendants, powerful and privileged people, are not above the law,” Mendell said. “They broke the law and now they face the consequences.”
US District Judge Nathaniel Gorton scheduled sentencing hearings on Feb. 16 for Abdelaziz and Feb. 17 for Wilson. The two men and their wives, seated in the front row of the courtroom, showed no visible signs of emotion as the jury announced its verdict. They left the courthouse without commenting.
Abdelaziz’s lawyer, Brian T. Kelly, said his client would appeal the verdict.
“On behalf of Mr. Abdelaziz, it’s obviously not the result he was looking for,” he said. “But that’s our system and that’s why they have appellate courts, so that’s what we’ll be doing next.”
Wilson’s lawyers declined to comment on their way out of the courthouse.
It’s unclear how much prison time the two men could face under federal sentencing guidelines. Forty-six people have pleaded guilty in the scheme, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Dozens of people have been sentenced, with terms ranging from probation to nine months in prison.
Wilson was also convicted of paying Singer $1 million in 2018 to have his twin daughters designated as recruits to Stanford and Harvard universities for sports they didn’t play.
Abdelaziz was convicted of paying Singer $300,000 in 2018 to have his daughter admitted to USC as a fake basketball recruit, even though she didn’t make her high school varsity team.
Defense lawyers argued at trial that Wilson and Abdelaziz believed their donations to the schools were legal. They said they were unaware that Singer funneled bribes to corrupt coaches and administrators who falsified athletic credentials for their children to have them admitted as recruits.
Wilson’s lawyers focused on evidence that his son, Johnny, was a talented water polo player in high school, and called former USC teammates who testified that Johnny Wilson practiced with the team after getting admitted. Jurors were shown a thank-you note that Wilson received for a $100,000 donation to USC’s men’s water polo team.
But prosecutors showed that former USC water polo coach, Jovan Vavic, falsified Johnny Wilson’s athletic credentials to have him admitted as a walk-on recruit; and Singer paid the private high school tuition for Vavic’s sons. Vavic has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
During closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant US Attorney Stephen Frank played a 2018 phone call between Singer and Wilson that the FBI secretly recorded.
“I’ll make them a sailor or something because of where you live,” Singer told Wilson during the September 2018 call as they discussed the possibility of getting Wilson’s daughters into top-tier colleges as purported athletic recruits — for a price. Wilson has a oceanfront home in Hyannis Port.
Wilson laughed and asked if he could get a “two-for-one special” for the twins.
The 2018 call between Singer and Wilson, recorded a week before Singer was confronted by the FBI and began cooperating with prosecutors, shows the pair were “caught red-handed scheming to get Wilson’s two daughters into some of the finest universities in the country as recruited athletes in exchange for money,” Frank told jurors during his summation.
In a call the following month after Singer had begun cooperating with investigators and which was also recorded, Singer told Wilson he had paid $160,000 to the Stanford sailing coach, who had guaranteed him one spot on next year’s team. He said he was giving Wilson “first dibs” if he wanted to send him $500,000 to secure the opening for one of his daughters.
“I asked him for a second spot in sailing and he said he can’t do that because he has to actually recruit some real sailors so that Stanford doesn’t catch on,” Singer said, according to a recording of the call. Wilson laughed and said he needed to speak to his daughters before paying, and asked if anything were available at Harvard. Singer told Wilson he was working on it.
Jurors were also shown evidence that Wilson wired $1 million to Singer to secure admission slots for his daughters. Prosecutors said Singer pretended he had a guaranteed slot at Harvard so Wilson would incriminate himself.
In their closing arguments, defense lawyers countered that Singer was a skilled con man who convinced Wilson and Abdelaziz they were making legitimate contributions. At the FBI’s request, Singer recorded conversations with Wilson, Abdelaziz, and other parents and coerced them into incriminating themselves. He has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. Prosecutors did not call him to the stand but played the telephone recordings at trial.
Wilson’s lawyer, Michael Kendall, said Wilson believed he had done nothing wrong and had been manipulated and deceived by Singer.
“John is not part of Singer’s con,” Kendall told jurors. “John is Rick Singer’s victim.”
And Kelly told jurors in his closing arguments there was “no proof that Mr. Abdelaziz had a specific intent to join some nationwide conspiracy. There simply isn’t.”
Kelly said prosecutors failed to prove their case, which was built on two conversations Singer had with Abdelaziz when Singer was cooperating with the FBI.
In an Oct. 2018 call, Singer told Abdelaziz that his charity was being audited and he had been asked about Abdelaziz’s $300,000 donation. He said he wasn’t going to tell the IRS that his donation was paid to Donna Heinel, USC’s senior associate athletic director, to get Abdelaziz’s daughter, Sabrina, into the school “even though she wasn’t a legitimate basketball player at that level.”
“OK,” Abdelaziz said.
“You’re OK with that, right?” Singer said.
“Of course,” said Abdelaziz, adding that his intention was to donate the money to Singer’s foundation.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.