A private equity investor who successfully appealed his bribery and fraud convictions for paying $1.2 million to get his three children into elite colleges as part of the sprawling Varsity Blues college admissions scandal called Wednesday’s appeals court decision a “true vindication,” and said his children were accomplished students who had been unfairly tarnished by the case.
“This has been a painful process for my family, and the court’s decision reinforces what we have said all along: that I did not commit any of these crimes and did not participate in any grand conspiracy,” said John B. Wilson, 63, of Lynnfield and Hyannis Port, in a statement. “More importantly, my children were all highly qualified on their own merits for each school they applied to, and they worked hard to earn their grades and test scores. Their achievements were tarnished by this process, and as a parent this has been heartbreaking to witness.”
Wilson said his payments were lawful donations to the schools and noted that the University of Southern California sent him a receipt for his donation to the water polo program and kept his money, even after the criminal charges were brought in 2019.
Wilson was charged with being part of an elaborate scheme run by college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, known as the Varsity Blues scandal, that cast a spotlight on the influence of wealth on college admissions. More than 50 defendants including parents and coaches pleaded guilty, and dozens served brief prison sentences.
But on Wednesday, the US First Circuit Court of Appeals vacated all but one of the charges against Wilson. He remains convicted of filing a false tax return for claiming a charitable and business deduction for the $220,000 payment he made in 2014 to help secure his son’s admission to USC as a water polo recruit. The court also vacated all of the charges against Wilson’s codefendant, Gamal Abdelaziz, 65, a former casino executive who lives in Las Vegas.
The 156-page decision by the three-judge panel was a resounding victory for Wilson and Abdelaziz, but legal analysts say it is a narrow ruling and is unlikely to affect the convictions of those who have previously pleaded guilty and served their sentences, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
“When you plead guilty, the chance that a subsequent appellate decision is going to allow you to revisit your guilty plea is very unusual,” said Aaron Katz, an attorney who represented a mother who pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering in the Varsity Blues case. “ I would be surprised if any of the defendants that pled guilty try to reinject this case into their lives and unwind their pleas. Sometimes there is a benefit to just move on with your life.”
But Katz said he had argued early on that the government should not be allowed to join the parents in a sweeping conspiracy case because they had all dealt with Singer independently and were unaware of what other parents had done. He said some parents quickly agreed to plead guilty — even to crimes they didn’t think they committed — because they were worried about going to trial with many other defendants.
“There were people who were innocent,” said Katz, adding that he wasn’t saying they “acted ethically,” but they didn’t believe they committed a federal crime.
The massive 2019 federal indictment involved two separate schemes masterminded by Singer. Some parents admitted they paid Singer to bribe corrupt college coaches and administrators to pass their children off as fake athletes for sports they didn’t even play to guarantee their admission as athletic recruits. Other parents admitted they conspired with Singer to bribe SAT and ACT exam administrators to allow someone to secretly take the test for their children or correct their answers afterward.
While 51 defendants pleaded guilty, Wilson and Abdelaziz were the first to go to trial, in October 2021.
They were found guilty by a jury of two types of mail and wire fraud: honest services fraud, by using their payments to deprive the universities of the honest services of their employees, and property fraud, by depriving the universities of property in the form of “admissions slots.” They were also found guilty of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery for plotting with Singer and other parents. Wilson was found guilty of additional bribery and fraud counts, as well as the tax charge.
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. Wilson’s son played water polo on elite teams in high school and was a member of the USC team his freshmen year, according to testimony. Wilson has also argued that his twin daughters were “highly qualified academically” and he believed his donations to schools would position them to be assistant managers for sailing and crew teams.
On Wednesday, the appeals court found that the government failed to prove that Wilson and Abdelaziz were part of an “overarching” conspiracy involving Singer and other parents, and that the pair didn’t get a fair trial because prosecutors introduced “a significant amount of powerful evidence related to other parents’ wrongdoing” that Wilson and Abdelaziz were not involved in. That included testimony from a parent involved in the test cheating scheme.
Abdelaziz’s lawyer, Brian T. Kelly, said, “I think the biggest flaw in this case is they failed to prove one overarching conspiracy and they tried to convict my client with the words and thoughts of others whom he had no dealings with.”
The appeals court rejected the defense’s argument that Wilson and Abdelaziz could not be charged with bribery in a case where the recipient of the bribe — USC — was also the victim. However, it found that the government’s theory that Wilson and Abdelaziz conspired to deprive USC of the honest services of its employees by paying bribes to Singer that were funneled to the school was “invalid” because the money went to the school’s athletic programs and wasn’t a traditional bribery or kickback scheme as required by recent Supreme Court rulings.
The court also rejected the defense’s claim that admissions slots at colleges could never be considered the property of universities, but the court ruled that the trial judge had erred by instructing jurors that all admission slots at colleges were considered the property of universities and not requiring prosecutors to present evidence to prove that.
In overturning the convictions of Wilson and Abdelaziz, the court wrote, “Nothing in this opinion should be taken as approval of the defendants’ conduct in seeking college admission for their children.”
A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s office said it was reviewing the opinion “and assessing next steps.”
Eric Rosen, who was the lead prosecutor on the Varsity Blues case until he left the US Attorney’s office at the end of 2020, said the court “broadly accepted the government’s position that corrupt payments to a college admissions program can be bribery.” He said that the decision should not affect the broader case, given the numerous guilty pleas.
“Most interesting is that the [appeals court] goes out of its way to describe how distasteful the conduct really was, echoing the reaction of the public at large throughout the pendency of this case,” Rosen said.
Attorney Martin Weinberg, who represented a parent who was pardoned by then former president Donald Trump, said the appeals court drew a line “that doesn’t criminalize the vast majority of relationships between parents and colleges,” which continue to seek donations from wealthy parents.
But, he added, “Parents are on notice that they are walking in a minefield when dealing with the Rick Singers of the world.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.