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Woman awaiting sentencing in Varsity Blues case chided for Disney cruise to Mexico; judge says ‘you can’t blame Disney.’

In this March 25, 2019, file photo, Donna Heinel, former University of Southern California athletics administrator, arrives at federal court in Boston to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.Steven Senne/Associated Press

A federal judge on Thursday scolded a former USC athletics administrator awaiting sentencing in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal for violating the terms of her release by taking a family Disney cruise to three Mexican ports.

“You need to comply with a set of directions,” said Judge Indira Talwani, addressing Donna Heinel during a remote hearing in US District Court in Boston.

Heinel, who pleaded guilty last year to honest services wire fraud in connection with the scandal, had been placed on pre-trial release in 2019 with conditions that included she not leave the country, court records show.


In an affidavit, her lawyer, Nina Marino, said she mistakenly thought Heinel wasn’t leaving the country during the cruise to Mexico as long as she didn’t get off the boat.

“I never intended to disrespect the court,” Heinel said during the hearing. “In this particular instance, I thought I had taken all the proper measures.”

Heinel said Disney informed her she didn’t need a passport to board the boat and would only need one if she planned to get off the vessel when it reached its destinations.

“I understand that your intentions here were not bad,” Talwani said, adding that Heinel should have called her probation officer with her question about the cruise, rather than Disney. “You can’t blame Disney.”

“I apologize to the court,” Heinel said.

Talwani did not penalize Heinel, who remains free until her sentencing, expected early next year.

For well over three years, Heinel had not been cited for “a single violation of her conditions of pretrial release,” her lawyer wrote in the affidavit. But on Nov. 23, she received a summons to appear in Boston for a hearing.

Marino said that Heinel’s probation officer, Martha Victoria, told her that “people don’t realize that being on international waters is being outside of the country,” according to the affidavit.


“Ms. Victoria also told me she was ‘kind of surprised’ because Dr. Heinel has been in ‘full compliance,’ including notifying [pre-trial services] of her home move, and there have been no other issues.”

Marino said the mix-up was her fault, not Heinel’s.

“I did not advise Dr. Heinel that she needed prior approval from [pre-trial services] to make this travel as I was mistakenly operating under the belief that her unrestricted United States travel controlled,” Marino wrote. “I was clearly incorrect. For this, I apologize to the Court.”

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

Prosecutors say Singer bribed Heinel and others “to designate students as recruited athletes,” even though the students weren’t qualified to play their sports at the collegiate level.

All told, more than 40 defendants 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.

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.

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