Parents guilty in first ‘Varsity Blues’ college admissions trial

Case comes after most charged in the case already pleaded guilty, leaving USC and Wake Forest coaches next for trial

October 8, 2021
California stadium
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A federal jury has convicted two parents in the first trial in the US college admissions scandal, finding they spent several hundred thousand dollars to illegally win their children admission to high-status universities.

The parents, John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz, were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy charges after 10 hours of deliberations by a jury that spent 14 days hearing evidence against them.

The trial came more than two years after the case was first announced, and after most of the 57 parents and other alleged participants caught up in it – including several corporate executives and two Hollywood celebrities – pleaded guilty.

Sentencing for Wilson and Abdelaziz was set for February; those admitting guilt have typically received jail terms of a few months.

The chief federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, Nathaniel Mendell, called the scheme “an affront to hard-working students and parents”.

“They and their families enjoy privileges and opportunities that most of us can only imagine,” Mr Mendell said of the two defendants after their guilty verdicts were read. “Yet they were willing to break the law in order to guarantee admissions for their children in a school of their choosing.”

His predecessor in the office, Andrew Lelling, who initiated the prosecutions in early 2019, called the trial outcome “a great statement against the abuse of extreme privilege”.

The outcome increases the likelihood of convictions in the few remaining cases, Mr Lelling said, since prosecutors won without needing the testimony of William Singer, the California admissions counsellor who was the mastermind behind the scheme.

Singer agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors after his operation was discovered by authorities pursuing a completely unrelated criminal investigation. But his reputation for deceit – described repeatedly at the trial – was widely seen as posing a high risk for prosecutors considering including him as a trial witness.

Singer ran the scheme primarily by depicting the students as athletes who could win entry to targeted institutions with the assistance of university coaches and sports officials who are allowed a limited number of admissions slots for top players.

Abdelaziz was convicted of paying $300,000 (£220,000) to win his daughter admission to the University of Southern California as a basketball player, and Wilson was convicted of paying $220,000 to win his son entry to USC as a water polo star. In both those cases, however, the students did play those sports, whereas the fabrications by Singer in other instances involved children who had little or no experience with the sport.

Wilson also was accused of spending another $1.5 million in a bid to win his twin daughters entry to Harvard and Stanford universities.

The two convictions, while celebrated by prosecutors, do not end questions for US higher education in general and USC in particular. USC was the chief institution used by Singer in his scheme to win student admissions through falsified admissions and bribery, and the next scheduled trial involves two former USC employees alleged to be central partners of Singer.

That trial, tentatively scheduled to begin in the middle of next month, includes Jovan Vavic, a former USC water polo coach, and Donna Heinel, a former USC athletics official. The third defendant grouped with them is William Ferguson, a former volleyball coach at Wake Forest University.

The trial of Wilson and Abdelaziz included evidence and testimony showing USC put pressure on officials such as Heinel to find ways of raising revenue through her position. Defence attorneys also repeatedly pointed out the fact that elite US universities give clear preferences in admissions for the children of their large financial donors.

Mr Lelling has acknowledged the complication posed by that reality, although he and current prosecutors emphasised the illegal nature of university employees trading admissions slots for donations on their own, even if the proceeds are spent within a university and its sports operations.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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