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Former USC athletics official pleads guilty to role in Varsity Blues college admissions scandal

Donna Heinel arrives for a court hearing in Boston in 2019.Steven Senne/Associated Press

A former University of Southern California athletics official pleaded guilty Friday to her role in the Varsity Blues college admissions cheating scandal that’s ensnared Hollywood stars, captains of industry, and corrupt coaches in on the scheme, according to legal filings.

Donna Heinel, former senior associate athletic director at USC, entered her plea in US District Court in Boston to a sole count of honest services wire fraud, records show. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop several additional charges that had been pending against her, according to her plea deal filed in court.

Her lawyers didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

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Heinel is one of the dozens of people charged in connection with the scheme, in which wealthy parents paid bribes to admitted mastermind William “Rick” Singer to get their children falsely designated as athletic recruits at selective colleges, thereby paving their way to admission, prosecutors have said.

An indictment filed against Heinel said Singer bribed her and others “to designate students as recruited athletes,” even though the students weren’t qualified to play their purported sports at the collegiate level.

Heinel’s guilty plea comes after jurors in federal court in Boston last month convicted two parents, 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 charges for participating in the bribery scheme. Both men remain free pending sentencing in February.

Heinel faces a maximum prison term of 20 years on the count to which she pleaded guilty, records show. However, it’s rare for first-time offenders to get anything approaching the maximum sentence, and federal prosecutors contend her base offense level, a figure used for calculating sentencing recommendations, is 21 out of 43.

Prosecutors said in the plea deal that Heinel’s offense level increased 14 points since “the gain that resulted from the offense was more than $550,000 but not more than $1,500,000.”

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Heinel remains free on bond pending sentencing, which is slated for March 11.

All told, more than 40 defendants have pleaded guilty in connection with the probe, including Singer, actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, former PIMCO boss Douglas Hodge, and Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs.


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