Former Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst, accused of accepting $2.7 million in bribes from parents in the US college admissions scandal, had a side hustle beyond his corrupt work with the scheme’s mastermind, according to federal prosecutors.
Ernst, who has pleaded not guilty, is “the most prolific of all the coaches” accused of taking bribes from parents of applicants, accepting payoffs as far back as 2007, Assistant US Attorney Eric Rosen told a federal judge in Boston on Thursday.
“He also solicited his own bribes outside of Rick Singer,” the scam’s ringleader, Rosen said during a hearing on potential conflicts in Ernst’s legal representation.
Prosecutors claim Ernst, as Georgetown’s head tennis coach, took cash for placing a dozen applicants on his teams as phony recruits to assure them of admission to the college. References they made in court suggest he may be trying to secure a cooperation agreement from the government. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
His attorney, Tracy Miner, declined to comment. The office of the US attorney for Massachusetts didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
None of the colleges or students in the scandal have been charged, and in a separate development Thursday, the government laid out its case for the University of Southern California — which was at the center of Singer’s racket — other colleges and the testing companies as victims. Opposing that argument, some of the parents fighting the charges argue there were no victims — that they made payments, not bribes, to colleges used to playing the donations-for-admissions game.
Complicating the matter, US probation officials have concluded that the victims that prosecutors cite suffered no financial harm, so the probation office isn’t including monetary losses in the sentencing advice it prepares for the court.
In an 18-page memo filed ahead of a hearing Tuesday on calculating sentences, prosecutors called that approach “mistaken.” They argued that the court should use the amounts of the alleged bribes to drive sentencing or, alternatively, reckon the costs to colleges and testing companies of internal investigations and brand damage.
Experts predict affected colleges like USC can “expect a decline in applications on the order of 10 percent for each of the next two years,” according to the memo. USC “is investigating 33 students to determine whether they had lied on their applications,” it said. The government also listed the schools that are dropping or have dropped the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams in the wake of the scandal.
As the US has laid out the scheme, Singer took thousands of dollars from wealthy clients to fix their children’s entrance-exam scores and hundreds of thousands in bribes for athletic coaches to put the kids on recruiting rosters, locking in admission at elite schools across the country, including USC, Stanford and Yale.
Lawyers with Miner’s firm, Miner Orkand Siddall LLP, have faced questions from the judge over potential conflicts of interest. The firm also represents Homayoun Zadeh, who has pleaded not guilty to conspiring with Singer to win his daughter’s admission to USC. Prosecutors contend the defense attorneys cannot legally and ethically represent both defendants.
“This is a very dangerous area we’re getting into,” Rosen told US Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley at a hearing in August. “It is directly hurting Mr. Ernst’s ability to cooperate, and for those reasons we ask counsel be directly disqualified.” He said “the proper course when you learn someone is interested in cooperation is to decline, not represent both.”
On Thursday, Miner told the court the firm has taken steps to address the conflicts and made arrangements for a lawyer from a different firm to serve as “conflicts counsel.” Ernst and Zadeh have never met, and their cases involve different schools, she said.
“Either defendant could decide to cooperate at any time,” Miner said. “That’s just a fact of life.”
Rosen maintained that the admissions scandal is “a single conspiracy” in which Ernst knew coaches at other schools who were also taking bribes.
That claim is central to the government’s case. Some parents charged in the scandal have invoked a 1946 Supreme Court case, Kotteakos v. US, in which a broker was accused of conspiring with 32 loan applicants to defraud the government. The high court reversed the resulting convictions, noting the defendants had only the broker in common, not one another, and that there were at least eight separate conspiracies, not just one as alleged.
Kelley closed the courtroom for part of the hearing, citing “the thing I think should not be on the public record.” She later reopened it and asked Ernst a series of questions about whether he understood his right to a separate attorney who is “loyal” only to him. He replied he understood and wanted to keep Miner Orkand.
The government has charged 34 parents in the scandal — 15 have pleaded guilty to fraud while the rest are fighting it out — as well as 17 coaches, test personnel, and Singer employees. Singer has admitted to leading the sprawling operation, pleaded guilty and is cooperating in the prosecution.