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Two parents urge appeals court to overturn convictions in Varsity Blues college admissions scandal

Varsity Blues trial defendant John B. Wilson and his wife, Leslie, left Moakley Federal Courthouse after a hearing in 2021.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A federal appeals court grilled the government Monday over whether two parents who were convicted last year of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to have their children accepted into elite colleges as fake athletic recruits received a fair trial in the nationwide Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.

During a hearing before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, lawyers for John B. Wilson, 63, a real estate private equity investor from Lynnfield and Hyannis Port, and Gamal Abdelaziz, 65, a former casino executive who lives in Las Vegas, argued that they were wrongly charged with being part of the sweeping conspiracy. The attorneys said their clients also were prevented from presenting evidence that may have helped them prove that they believed the payments were legitimate donations.

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“The government was notably aggressive in trying to prevent the defense from mounting what they characterized as a good faith defense,” Judge Kermit V. Lipez, a member of the three-judge panel, said during the two-hour hearing at the federal courthouse in Boston.

Lipez said he didn’t understand why the trial judge had denied a defense request to subpoena witnesses from the University of Southern California who could testify about the admissions “culture” at the school and whether unqualified applicants were routinely accepted if they came from wealthy families.

“The notion that, ‘We were not doing anything wrong, this was just the way business was done,’ how can you argue that that evidence would not be relevant?” Lipez said. “I don’t understand that.”

Assistant US Attorney Alexia DeVincentis argued that Wilson and Abdelaziz received a fair trial and the convictions should stand.

“This case was not about whether USC gave preferential admissions treatment in exchange for donations,” said DeVincentis, adding that it was about whether Wilson and Abdelaziz falsely represented their children’s athletic abilities and paid bribes to get their children accepted into top colleges.

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The court took the case under advisement.

Fifty-seven people, including wealthy parents, celebrities, college coaches and administrators, were charged in the sweeping scandal that cast a spotlight on the influence of wealth on college admissions and sent dozens of people to prison. Fifty-one people pleaded guilty, one parent received a pardon from then-president Donald Trump, and another was given a deferred prosecution agreement.

Wilson and Abdelaziz, who were the first to stand trial, were convicted of participating in a bribery scheme orchestrated by a California college consultant. They 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.,

Jurors found that Wilson paid 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.

Abdelaziz was sentenced to a year in prison, while Wilson was sentenced to 15 months. Their sentences have been stayed pending appeal. Singer, who cooperated with authorities after being confronted by the FBI and secretly recorded conversations with parents, is slated to be sentenced in January on related charges.

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On Monday, Washington attorney Noel J. Francisco, who represents Wilson, argued that the charges were legally flawed on several grounds. He said it was unprecedented for the government to charge Wilson and Abdelaziz with bribery in a case where the recipient of the bribe — USC — was also the victim.

“Donating to a university is not bribing its employees; the school cannot be both the victim of the scheme and its beneficiary,” Francisco wrote in a brief filed with the court. “No bribery case in history merges those two incompatible roles, for good reason.”

Francisco also argued that Wilson and Abdelaziz could not be part of a sweeping conspiracy since the government had failed to prove they were aware of any actions taken by other alleged members of the conspiracy.

Attorney Joshua Honig Sharp, who represents Abdelaziz, argued that all Abdelaziz knew was that Singer could help his daughter get into USC based on a donation, and that knowledge didn’t implicate him in “a coast-to-coast nationwide conspiracy.”

Yet, he argued prosecutors were able to introduce “an avalanche of evidence of bad acts by other parents,” including cheating on admissions tests.

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.

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Wilson’s lawyers focused on evidence that his son, Johnny, was a talented water polo player in high school. 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 a former USC water polo coach, Jovan Vavic, had falsified Johnny Wilson’s athletic credentials to have him admitted as a walk-on recruit and that Singer had paid the private high school tuition for Vavic’s sons. Vavic was convicted at a separate trial, but a judge overturned his conviction in June and ordered a new trial.



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