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Former USC water polo coach denies taking bribes in Varsity Blues college admissions case

Former University of Southern Californa water polo coach Jovan Vavic leaving the Moakley Courthouse at the end of the first day of his bribery trial.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A renowned former water polo coach at the University of Southern California was told by school officials to try to recruit players whose families could make significant donations, but he never took bribes or lied to help applicants get admitted, his lawyer told a federal jury in Boston on Thursday.

Jovan Vavic “was doing exactly what USC wanted” when he tried to use athletic recruits for fund-raising, his lawyer, Stephen Larson of Los Angeles, told jurors during opening statements at Vavic’s bribery trial, part of the sprawling college admissions bribery scandal.

“USC suffers from a certain degree of institutional schizophrenia,” said Larson, adding that the college wants to project itself “as this pristine institution of higher academic learning,” where the only thing that matters is your grades and competency … and money has nothing to do with it.”

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But, he said, money “has everything to do with it. Donations are the lifeblood of the institution.”

Vavic, who coached USC’s men’s and women’s water polo teams to a total of 16 national championships, was fired after his March 2019 arrest. He was among 57 people, including wealthy parents, athletic coaches, and administrators arrested in the admissions scandal, dubbed Varsity Blues.

Prosecutors allege that Vavic, 60, of California, accepted $200,000 in bribes from William “Rick” Singer, a California college admissions consultant who masterminded the sprawling bribery scheme.

Prosecutors allege Singer sent $100,000 to a fund for the water polo team and paid nearly $120,000 for the private high school tuition for Vavic’s two sons. In exchange, they allege Vavic fabricated the athletic credentials of two applicants — children of Singer’s wealthy clients — and flagged them as water polo recruits, securing their admission to USC.

Vavic’s lawyer told jurors that Vavic’s sons were extraordinary students and water polo players and Singer awarded them scholarships through his nonprofit to pay for their tuition.

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The government contends that USC was a victim of the scheme and that Vavic lied to his colleagues when he claimed the two walk-on recruits he was pushing for admission were among the top 10 players in the country — even though one of them was a high school senior who hadn’t played water polo since her sophomore year.

The university released a statement Thursday saying that “USC and our admissions processes are not on trial. The government has charged Mr. Vavic with taking bribes and deceiving USC’s Office of Admission by falsely presenting Mr. Singer’s clients as student-athletes.”

In his opening statement to jurors, Assistant US Attorney Ian Stearns said the case is “not about wealthy people donating money to USC in the hopes that their children get preferential treatment in the admission process. They do.”

Stearns said it is about Vavic’s “lies in exchange for money, like recruiting a woman who doesn’t play water polo,” in exchange for payments for his sons’ tuition.

Vavic is also accused of helping Singer recruit several other coaches to participate in the scheme.

Vavic is one of two people with charges still pending in the Varsity Blues scandal and the only coach swept up in the scandal who is taking his case to trial. Fifty-one of the 57 people charged in the case have pleaded guilty, including nine coaches from USC, and Georgetown, Stanford, and Yale universities.

An indictment charges Vavic with fraud, and conspiracy to commit bribery and fraud.

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Prosecutors allege that Singer used a sham charity he created to funnel payments to corrupt athletic coaches and administrators at colleges across the country to help his clients’ children get accepted to top schools. Singer was confronted by the FBI in 2018 and began cooperating in the ongoing investigation. He has pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme and is awaiting sentencing.

Stearns told jurors Thursday that the government won’t call Singer to testify “because this trial is not about him.” But he said prosecutors will play FBI recordings of conversations between Singer, Vavic, and others implicated in the scheme.

“The coaches didn’t come up with the scheme, that was Rick Singer, but without them and without him, it never would have happened,” said Stearns, pointing to Vavic, seated at the defense table.

Vavic’s lawyer told jurors that Singer was “ground zero” for the investigation and it was telling that prosecutors “will not have the courage to call him.”

Larson described Singer as a manipulative con man and fraudster who lied to Vavic and about him.

“The evidence will show that the college admissions scandal is real, but coach Vavic was not a part of it,” Larson said. “Every dollar that parents donated to USC you will find stayed at USC. He did not take a dime. … There’s no misappropriation, no fraud.”

On Wednesday, US District Court Judge Indira Talwani, who is presiding over Vavic’s trial, denied a motion by the defense to dismiss the case based on its claim that prosecutors have failed to turn over evidence that Singer has allegedly been involved in other crimes, including money laundering.

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The judge wrote that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of government misconduct, but added, “There is a sufficient basis for concern as to Singer’s credibility.”

Among those charged in the sprawling scheme, two parents were convicted at trial, another was pardoned by the former president, Donald Trump, and one coach was given a deferred prosecution agreement. Thirty-seven people have been sentenced so far, to terms ranging from probation to 15 months in prison. One parent is awaiting trial.


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.