First US admissions scandal defendant spared prison

Leniency shown to former Stanford coach not likely for parents and other participants, judge suggests

June 13, 2019
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The first defendant to be sentenced in the US college admissions scandal has been spared prison, largely because he did not personally take bribe money and readily admitted his guilt.

The defendant, John Vandemoer, who was charged with accepting $610,000 (£480,000) in admissions-related payments while he was a sailing coach at Stanford University, was ordered to serve two years’ probation, including six months of home confinement.

US District Judge Rya Zobel also ordered Mr Vandemoer, who was fired by Stanford after he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy, to pay a $10,000 fine.

Federal prosecutors have been pursuing cases against nearly 50 defendants, including parents who paid to get their children admitted to elite institutions such as Stanford, Yale and Georgetown universities.

Prosecutors suggested disappointment with Mr Vandemoer’s sentence, having asked Judge Zobel to impose a 13-month prison sentence as a deterrent to actions they see as corrupting US college admissions processes.

“We will continue to seek meaningful penalties in these cases,” the chief prosecutor on the case, Andrew Lelling, said after the sentencing in federal court in Boston.

Some in higher education shared the sense of disappointment. The actions in the case, said Douglas Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, defrauded all high school students nationwide. “To me, that is a far more worthy of prison time than many people currently sitting in prison,” he said.

Others, however, have suggested a far wider influence problem in higher education, given that Mr Lelling himself openly acknowledged that there were more common and legal methods than bribery to gain unmerited admission.

“We’re not talking about donating a building so the school is more likely to accept your son or daughter,” the prosecutor said in March when the overall scandal was first revealed publicly.

The activities condemned by Mr Lelling and other prosecutors involved coaches, testing officials and private admissions counsellors accepting millions of dollars in bribes to falsify student applicant sports and academic credentials to help secure admissions. The alleged payments ranged from tens of thousands of dollars to several million.

Parents charged in the case, and still awaiting sentencing or trial, include Hollywood celebrities and wealthy business leaders. Of the 48 named so far, including coaches and testing officials, 20 have admitted guilt.

Mr Vandemoer was accused of accepting payments into his sailing programne in exchange for designating two applicants to Stanford who had no sailing experience as sailing recruits.

Judge Zobel did sentence Mr Vandemoer to one day in prison but deemed it to have been served already. The judge, however, strongly suggested that others implicated in the case should not expect similarly light treatment. His sentence, she said, reflected the fact that he appeared to be “the least culpable of all the coaches” charged by prosecutors.

The case garnered criticism on Capitol Hill when it first emerged, although it has generated little evidence of sustained momentum towards any policy changes.

That’s for the best, according to university lobbyists, given that the institutions had no role in any of the bribes. Fear of reputational damage and embarrassment is enough to drive internal change aimed at preventing any recurrences, said Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, the main US higher education lobby group.

Dr Hartle did not want to comment on Mr Vandemoer’s sentence, but he made clear that the government had no role beyond the courtroom in such cases. “I don’t see any externally imposed solutions that are necessary or desirable,” he said.

Stanford also avoided suggesting any particular penalty. But in a “victim impact statement” to the court, the university said Mr Vandemoer’s actions had hurt its reputation and weakened public confidence in the overall US college admissions system.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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