Donor favours muddled ‘Varsity Blues’ probe, prosecutor admits

Standard university solicitations raised some concern in arresting parents over admissions bribes

September 29, 2021
 Andrew E. Lelling giving a press conference as this story is about him.
Source: Getty

Federal prosecutors in the US college admissions bribery scandal struggled with the idea of criminally charging parents while knowing that institutions favour the children of large donors, their initial leader acknowledged.

But upon reflection, former US attorney Andrew Lelling said, the prosecution team recognised that any potential problems in donor solicitations by universities would be too difficult to pursue legally given how well institutions hide the mechanisms.

“It is an interesting question,” Mr Lelling said of comparisons between the bribery of corrupt university officials and the more standard delivery of donations directly to universities. “And it’s one that we debated a lot internally at the time.”

That conclusion about bribery, Mr Lelling told Times Higher Education, also applies to the question of tax avoidance, which is the other major criminal allegation facing many parents in the nationwide scandal.

The tax charges centre on the understanding that parents caught in the scandal cheated on their taxes by claiming as tax-exempt charitable contributions the payments they made to help their children win college admissions.

Universities, however, also solicit donations as tax-exempt while admitting that they give some children of their big-dollar contributors the benefit of extra consideration in their admissions processes.

“I’m not telling you that there’s no overlap in the Venn diagram,” Mr Lelling said. “I’m just saying that there are policy reasons and there are proof reasons why you would never see that kind of case” brought against universities.

Mr Lelling is now a partner at the law firm Jones Day. While serving as the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts in 2019, Mr Lelling announced the arrests of dozens of parents who allegedly paid a California admissions adviser to win their children admission to elite universities through tactics that included posing them as competitive athletes.

The first trial in that scandal is under way in Boston, after the majority of the 33 parents and 24 other alleged participants – many of them team coaches and other university officials – pleaded guilty.

The bribes were allegedly paid by parents in the form of donations to a charity created by William Singer, the admissions adviser who was the mastermind behind the scheme.

The two parents on trial in Boston are business executives Gamal Abdelaziz, and John Wilson, both of whom worked with Mr Singer to get their children admitted to the University of Southern California.

Those testifying include Rebecca Chassin, USC’s assistant dean of undergraduate admissions, who admitted to the jury that some children of donors do get extra consideration in USC’s admissions processes.

“There is a process by which students that are of special interest to constituents around campus will receive a look before their decisions are finalised,” Ms Chassin acknowledged.

Such opportunities for donors are understood to be common. The president of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro, admitted to his student newspaper shortly after the scandal became public in 2019 that he gave personal attention to a “select pool” of several hundred applicants, including those from families that donate to the institution.

Outside experts, however, agreed with Mr Lelling’s assessment that there were major legal and practical obstacles to investigating such practices as criminal matters.

They include the understanding that – unlike what Mr Singer has admitted to doing – universities don’t typically make explicit guarantees of admission for donations.

“It’s absolutely unquantifiable,” Allen Koh, chief executive officer of the college admissions services company Cardinal Education, said of the level of advantage in admissions that universities give to their big donors. “These decisions are made at the highest levels, I think on purpose, specifically not to have a massive paper trail.”

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