When the US Court of Appeals in Boston last week threw out the fraud and bribery convictions of Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson, two parents who had been found guilty in the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, their lawyers called it a “true vindication” and an affirmation of their “absolute innocence.” The Court of Appeals wasn’t nearly so flattering. It overturned the convictions, it said, because the government hadn’t proved that the men’s intention was to join a bribery conspiracy when they made whopping payments to grease their children’s admission into top schools. But while the prosecutors’ case may have been flawed, the parents’ behavior was far from admirable.
“Nothing in this opinion,” the court pointedly noted, “should be taken as approval of the defendants’ conduct in seeking college admission for their children.”
The decision was a blow to federal prosecutors. If the other Varsity Blues defendants were awaiting trial, the appellate court’s ruling would cast an ominous shadow over the government’s prospects of winning any further convictions.
But for most of those defendants, there never were any trials. Of the 57 people charged in the scandal, 51 pleaded guilty. Most were sentenced to a few weeks or months in prison, community service, and a fine. Even if they wanted to retroactively withdraw their guilty pleas, the odds against their being allowed to do so would be steep. As the attorney for one of the defendants told Globe reporter Shelley Murphy, “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.”
So all those convictions bagged by the US attorney’s office will presumably stay bagged. The dozens of wealthy parents, coaches, and others who paid or pocketed bribes, doctored student applications, cheated on college entrance exams, and otherwise cut corners to facilitate admissions to elite universities through a “side door” will have to live with a criminal record and a blot on their reputation. Some may even regret the behavior that got them into trouble in the first place: funneling tens of thousands of dollars to “consultant” Rick Singer, who used their money to grease their kids’ admission to schools like Georgetown, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Southern California.
From the moment the Varsity Blues indictments were unveiled in 2019, the whole business reeked of sleaze, fraud, and the sordid amorality of many American elites. It underscored as well the moral disintegration of academia, long sullied by ideological rigidity, identity politics, political intolerance, and left-wing social engineering. For many of the parents involved, no dishonest machination was too extreme if it would get their child into the “right” college. “I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” Connecticut lawyer Gordon Caplan told Singer, when they discussed ways his daughter’s GPA could fraudulently be inflated. “I’m worried about the — if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.” (Caplan pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a month in prison.)
Yet for all their crookedness and deceit, did the shameful things these people did really justify a massive federal prosecution? To build its case, the Justice Department pulled out all the stops: “The investigation included wiretaps, stakeouts, reviews of bank statements, travel records, cell-site data, emails, and interviews with cooperating witnesses — chief among them Singer, who seems not simply to have thrown his clients under a bus, but rather to have taken them to Port Authority and thrown them under an entire fleet,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan in a 2019 essay for The Atlantic.
And for what? So that a few dozen fat cats could be nailed for cheating to get their kids into college? Was that truly a national priority? There is no shortage of grave crimes and deadly conspiracies that genuinely threaten the American public: narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, identity theft, domestic terrorism, rampant tax evasion, and public corruption, to name a few. Rich parents forking over wads of dough and conjuring phony evidence that their sons or daughters were athletic stars in high school is disgraceful. But it hardly rises to the level of a criminal plot against the United States.
The offenses to which most of the defendants pleaded guilty were vague catch-alls like “honest services fraud” — jurisdictional hooks that the government used to prosecute actions not otherwise covered under the US criminal code. That seems less like justice than an abuse of prosecutorial discretion. When all is said and done, Operation Varsity Blues got great headlines and humiliated some millionaires. Was the juice, to coin a phrase, really worth the squeeze?
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter