‘At some point, I got lost,’ says former Stanford sailing coach sentenced in college bribery scandal
Four months ago, John Vandemoer was coaching the Stanford University women’s sailing team at a regatta in South Carolina, silently trying to make sense of a recent visit by an FBI agent. He was being investigated, they said, for taking bribes to grease the way for certain students to be admitted to the prestigious California school.
The case was not yet public, but it was later revealed to be part of a massive federal investigation that would rock the integrity of the admissions system at some of the country’s top schools.
This week, days before he became the first person sentenced in relation to the scandal, the 41-year-old from Barnstable sat for an interview with the Globe in Boston, saying he was looking for closure and to make amends. Prosecutors said he tried to get three students into Stanford, under the false pretext that they were sailors, in exchange for $610,000 in donations to the sailing program.
“At some point, I got lost,” Vandemoer said, folding his hands on the table in front of him. “I thought I was doing the best thing for the whole team. That helped me get lost because I thought I knew what I was doing.”
Vandemoer, a father of two young children who found a passion for sailing on the waters off Cape Cod, was sentenced Wednesday to one day in prison — time already served — plus two years of supervised release, including six months of home confinement with a $10,000 fine. Prosecutors had asked that he serve more than a year in prison.
The case involved coaches, powerful financiers, and celebrities who paid to get their children into top-tier colleges, in what became a nationwide scandal that forced universities to review their own admissions systems. Already, 19 others have pleaded guilty.
Vandemoer’s case could serve as guidance for prosecutors and lawyers as they look at how to handle future cases related to the scandal. US District Judge Rya Zobel ruled Wednesday that the financial losses of Stanford, the purported victim of the case, were minimal, a technical legal decision that could lessen the sentence for other defendants.
While agreeing that the circumstances of each case are different, prosecutors had sought to argue that the very nature of them — bribery — demands a prison sentence.
“This case goes far beyond Mr. Vandemoer and the $610,000 he agreed to accept,” argued Assistant US Attorney Eric Rosen.
Vandemoer’s lawyers pointed out, unlike the other coaches who were implicated, he never personally profited from any payments. All the money he received went back into the sailing program, to help pay for an assistant coach, and for equipment and uniforms. No student had ever gotten into Stanford because of Vandemoer’s fraudulent help, either. His attorneys called the sentence appropriate.
But Vandemoer said the closure of his case is still only the first step as he seeks to restore trust with his family, his friends from Cape Cod, the Stanford community, and his sailing alumni, who, he pleaded, had no involvement in the scandal.
“I was doing everything for my team, trying to do the right thing; that was my intention,” he said. “But looking back, it was the opposite.”
The case brought so much negative publicity to the Stanford sailing program, he said, that one of his former athletes questioned whether she should list the program on her resume. That devastated him, he said.
Vandemoer said the first he learned about the investigation in February, when he was contacted by agents from the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. He thought they were targeting William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind behind the scheme to help students cheat their way into some of the country’s top-tier colleges and universities.
Days later, Vandemoer said, he learned he was the one being targeted. Singer had already cooperated with the investigators and had incriminated Vandemoer in a telephone conversation. The following weekend, Vandemoer was at the College of Charleston regatta, leading his team to second place as he was trying to reconcile how he could be guilty of bribery.
A week after that, he made the decision to plead guilty before he was indicted, under a rushed agreement with prosecutors that he would serve no more than 18 months in prison. He said he was looking to end the case then, before it could bring any more damage to his family or the university.
The prosecutors had initially argued that Vandemoer was subject to a prison sentence of 37 to 46 months under federal sentencing guidelines. Though Vandemoer never personally profited from the scheme, the prosecutors argued, “His action nonetheless enhanced his own status within the university, gave him more money to use for the sailing program he implemented, and furthered his career.”
The scheme worked in two ways: Singer bribed coaches to list student applicants as recruits for their sports programs, even if they did not play the sport, knowing it could facilitate their admission. Or, he would bribe professional test takers to help students improve their test scores, either by fixing their answers or taking the tests for them.
Singer, who collected more than $25 million in the scheme, pleaded guilty and is slated to be sentenced in September. He faces several years in prison, under an agreement with prosecutors that involved his cooperation in the investigation. He wore a wire during conversations with parents and coaches, including Vandemoer.
The first time Vandemoer worked with Singer was in the fall of 2016. Singer asked him to designate an unidentified student applicant from China as a sailing recruit, though the student had no experience. It didn’t matter; Singer would create a fake profile for the student. They never agreed on a payment, but Singer told him the student’s family would create endowments at Stanford that would pay for the sailing program, including the coach’s salaries.
It was too late in the recruiting season for Vandemoer to list the student as a recruit. Nevertheless, the student was accepted into Stanford anyway. Singer made a $500,000 donation from a charity foundation he created toward Stanford, what he called a down payment for future deals.
Singer sought Vandemoer’s help in recruiting two other students and paid another $110,000 to the university. Those two students chose to attend other schools. Later, by the fall of 2018, Singer told Vandemoer he would keep donating to the school, for his assistance. But, by then, Singer had been recording their conversations for the FBI and captured Vandemoer’s confirmation of their past agreements, and his acknowledgment that they were wrong.
“If you’re OK, I’ll get back to you, 100 or 200 [thousand], I’ll pay to you. And that ways, hopefully, it, you know, keeps our relationship alive,” Singer told him.
“Yeah, no, not a problem,” Vandemoer responded. “Yeah, yeah, absolutely.”
In the interview, Vandemoer said he became “lost” in the conversations. He said the discussions with Singer, who purported to run a legitimate business, originally centered on ways he could recruit new athletes to the sailing program. They later transcended into what, he acknowledges now, was fraud.
Vandemoer said he only grasped the criminality of what he was doing after the visit by federal agents. He was fired on March 12, the day he pleaded guilty, and only three weeks after that first FBI visit. He still lives in the Bay Area and has started to attend classes for a master’s program, exploring what to do next.
Before Wednesday, Stanford had filed a letter with the court denouncing Vandemoer, saying his actions “undermined public confidence in the college admissions system and reflected negatively on Stanford and its hard-working, honest student-athletes.”
Vandemoer said he most regretted the impact on his former sailors.
“It’s just been devastating, that they got that attention,” he said. “They didn’t deserve that, they had no part in this. It’s just been devastating I dragged them through this.”
The case, he said, had already ruined a dream career coaching sailing, a passion that began when he was a youngster on Cape Cod and grew as he sailed in college, coached at the US Naval Academy, and later coached at Stanford.
“I just felt more comfortable on the water than anywhere else,” he said.