The prospective student’s e-mail was gushing but grammatically flawed.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to attend USC and be apart of the Trojan family,” the student wrote in June 2018 to Kirk Brennan, director of admissions at the University of Southern California.
The university had rejected the student but had agreed to reconsider his application. Brennan forwarded the e-mail to Tim Brunold, the dean of admissions, and the two administrators snickered at the student’s lapse.
“Clearly a well-qualified lad,” Brunold quipped.
“Apart from his English, yeah,” Brennan responded. “Good enough to shag balls for the tennis team anyway.”
“Heh, heh, you said balls,” Brunold replied, prompting Brennan to recall “Beavis and Butt-head,” a cartoon about two immature teenagers known for their crudeness and love of heavy metal.
The exchange over the apparent tennis prospect, detailed in a defense motion filed in federal court Tuesday in the college admissions scandal, suggests that admissions officers were well aware that some applicants would be judged on more than academic merit, according to lawyers for a parent implicated in the bribery scheme.
Attorneys for Robert Zangrillo, a Miami developer accused of fraud, have gathered e-mails between USC officials and spreadsheets filled with prospective students and the large amounts of money their families had either pledged or donated to the university. Those students were tagged “VIP,” the lawyers wrote.
The internal records are meant to show that USC gave far more deference to students whose families made generous donations.
Lawyers for Zangrillo have subpoenaed the university to hand over more information about its admission practices to show that favoritism to children of wealthy donors extended well beyond the athletics department.
“University officials . . . were keenly aware that VIP applicants did not have to be admitted based on merit,” Zangrillo’s lawyers wrote in a motion filed Tuesday. “In short, USC is far from the crime ‘victim’ that it claims to be.”
Zangrillo’s daughter, Amber, was rejected the first time she applied to USC in 2017. The following year, federal prosecutors said, Zangrillo arranged with William Rick Singer, a college consultant from California, to submit a second application that falsely stated she rowed crew.
Amber Zangrillo was accepted as a transfer student that year and her father donated $50,000 to USC. Prosecutors said he also paid Singer $200,000.
Federal prosecutors allege that Singer, 58, was at the center of a conspiracy that involved dozens of parents across the country who were willing to pay up to $6.5 million to get their children into elite schools like Yale University and USC. Singer owned the Edge College & Career Network and bragged that he offered a full-service “side door” into those institutions, according to court documents.
Zangrillo’s lawyer, Martin C. Weinberg, said the internal USC documents show that the $50,000 donation his client made was routine.
“The documents fully legitimatize Mr. Zangrillo’s donation to USC, that was made after the admission of his daughter,” Weinberg said. “Such donations are simply not illegal, not even unusual, and were welcomed by the school.”
USC officials have said the university was a victim in a bribery and cheating scheme perpetrated by former athletic department staff, a college consultant, and parents who wanted their children to attend the selective school.
On Tuesday, USC reiterated its stance that it is not unusual for institutions to mark applicants with a “so-called special interest tag.”
“Mr. Zangrillo’s filing appears to be part of a legal and public relations strategy to divert attention from the criminal fraud for which he has been indicted by a federal grand jury,” university officials said in a statement. “USC remains confident that the court will agree with us that it need not produce the information and documents requested by the defendant.”
The e-mails referenced by Zangrillo’s lawyers “demonstrate that no athletic department official has the authority to compel admissions decisions,” USC officials said.
The exhibits filed Tuesday showed several spreadsheets kept by campus officials who tagged students as “VIP” or “special interest” and included notations such as “long time donors,” “1 mil pledge,” and “$15 mil.”
The notes also included nonfinancial details about students like “adopted,” “4.0 in fall term,” and “50 percent American-Indian.” The spreadsheets were forwarded to Brunold by athletic department officials who showered him with praise and requests to consider students on their lists.
“You look thinner — don’t know if you’ve been working out,” Donna C. Heinel, then the university’s senior associate athletic director, wrote in March 2016.
She went on to mention an applicant whose relatives had been “donors for decades.” Heinel is accused of conspiring with Singer to accept millions of dollars in bribes.
In an August declaration to the court, Brunold said his department “has no involvement with respect to donations or potential donations.”
“The admission department does not track donations by an applicant’s family,” Brunold said in a declaration submitted by USC attorneys, who are trying to squash the subpoena to hand over more internal e-mails and data. “If I had known that a prospective student’s family had donated $50,000 or $100,000 to USC, it would not have affected the admission department’s decision whether to admit the student.”
But defense attorneys said that in one e-mail, Brunold said he maintained a “university-wide VIP spreadsheet.” Between 68 percent and 83 percent of applicants with VIP status and who were tapped by the athletic department were accepted.
“This pattern constitutes powerful circumstantial evidence that, contrary to the representations made in Brunold’s declaration, money played a key role in the admission process,” Zangrillo’s lawyers wrote.
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.