A wealthy California vintner was hit with a five-month federal prison sentence Friday for participating in the nationwide college admissions cheating scandal that enraged the public and sparked heated debates about the role of money in getting into elite schools.
Agustin Francisco Huneeus Jr., 53, of San Francisco learned his fate in US District Court in Boston, records show. He pleaded guilty in May to a sole count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Prosecutors announced the prison term via Twitter. It wasn’t immediately clear what additional penalties were levied against Huneeus.
Huneeus was one of 52 defendants entangled in the scheme, in which well-heeled parents cut hefty checks to William “Rick” Singer, the plot’s admitted mastermind, in order to get their children falsely designated as athletic recruits at selective schools, or to pad their kids’ SAT scores.
Singer has pleaded guilty to his starring role in the ruse and awaits sentencing.
Federal prosecutors had wanted Huneeus to spend 15 months in prison and pay a $95,000 fine, plus restitution, as punishment for agreeing to pay a total of $300,000 to boost his daughter’s SAT score and have her designated as a fake water polo recruit at the University of Southern California.
Prosecutors said Huneeus’s daughter “played water polo, but not at a level that would have warranted” recruitment to a college squad.
“Huneeus was assertive and self-assured in his interactions with co-conspirator William ‘Rick’ Singer,” prosecutors wrote in a recent sentencing memorandum. “He was clear about what he expected, and demanded assurances that he would receive his bribe money back if the schemes failed.”
In October 2018, prosecutors wrote, Huneeus “instructed his daughter not to discuss the scheme with anybody and to have a ‘keep-your-trap-shut mentality.’ ” His daughter got a conditional acceptance letter from USC the following month, but her dad was charged before she could be formally accepted, records show.
As a result, prosecutors said, Huneeus did not pay the remaining $200,000 he owed to Singer.
“Huneeus is the only defendant appearing before this Court who engaged in both the college exam and the athletic recruitment schemes,” prosecutors wrote. “Indeed, as Huneeus made clear, he was willing to commit as much fraud as was necessary to secure his daughter’s admission to college.”
Singer ultimately cooperated with law enforcement and secretly recorded several clients including Huneeus, capturing remarkably frank discussions about the fraud. During one call with Singer, prosecutors said, Huneeus lamented the fact that his daughter was late in providing Singer with a photo of herself playing water polo for her application.
“Yeah, I can’t believe we lose this, we blew this on a [expletive] picture,” Huneeus said, according to court records. “That’s just awful.”
Not to worry, Singer replied.
“So this is how much I care,” Singer said. “I found a picture that I could put in the place of the picture we wanted so that I could submit on the day of. Because I waited. That’s how much I wanted this to happen. . . . And it wasn’t even a picture of her! But it could suffice, right?”
Also in conversation with Singer, records show, Huneeus asked whether there was any chance “this thing blows up in my face” and foreshadowed the coming media firestorm when he said, “[L]ike some article comes out that the, the . . . polo team is selling seats into the school for 250 grand.”
And when Singer warned on one recorded call not to tell the feds about the scam, Huneeus allegedly said, “Dude, dude, what do you think, I’m a moron?”
The government thought Huneeus was a criminal deserving of more than a year behind bars.
“The term of imprisonment recommended by the government is the only appropriate sentence in such circumstances,” prosecutors wrote.
Huneeus’s lawyers saw it differently.
They had requested a two-month prison term for their client, “followed by one year of supervised release, including as a special condition performing 350 hours of community service, and a fine of $95,000,” records show.
Other than the college scam, his attorneys wrote in a recent filing, “Agustin has led a law-abiding and exemplary life. Some of the letters submitted on his behalf are unique and especially notable as they highlight Agustin’s willingness to help others in a variety of ways from providing financial assistance, to being a source of emotional support during difficult times, to rolling up his sleeves and providing hands-on assistance. A number of the letter writers are immigrant employees at the vineyard that Agustin formerly operated, and they attest to Agustin’s personal commitment to their welfare and professional development.”
Huneeus submitted a letter to the court as well.
“In a shameful failure, I went along with [Singer’s] plan,” Huneeus wrote. “This was a horrendous decision that in addition to being illegal, did not support my daughter’s own hard work and ability, and set a terrible example for her. I realize now that cheating on her behalf was not about helping her, it was about how it would make me feel. In the end my own ego brought me down.”
He continued, “As a result, I have harmed my daughter. I demonstrated to her that I did not believe in her. I put a wonderful young woman who I love and I am proud of through the most horrible public shaming and at such a critical time in her life. What I have done to her has caused her damage and I am so ashamed of myself for this. My decision has impacted all of my daughters and my wife. Every day I imagine the conversation when I will have to tell my youngest that her father is a convicted criminal.”
But he also found a silver lining.
“I will use this cataclysmic event to work on myself and to come back stronger,” he wrote. “I will work harder than ever to improve the lives of those I have harmed and atone for my crime so that I can regain my dignity and be worthy of the respect of my friends and family again.”