Trump pardons wealthy parent in college admissions scandal

Outgoing US president cites USC trustee in rationale for helping fellow Florida developer

January 21, 2021
University of Southern California

Outgoing US president Donald Trump, in his final hours before leaving office, pardoned a wealthy parent charged in the college admissions scandal, raising new ethical questions for the University of Southern California and higher education more broadly.

The beneficiary, Florida developer Robert Zangrillo, was among more than 100 people – many with real estate ties – spared in the final hours of the Trump administration by the president’s ability to pardon crimes and commute sentences in federal cases.

Mr Zangrillo was one of the dozens of parents charged in 2019 with paying bribes to help their children gain admission to elite US universities through methods that often involved paying college coaches to fraudulently present the students as talented athletes.

In a statement, the Trump administration said those backing Mr Zangrillo’s pardon included another real estate investor, Thomas Barrack, a member of the USC board of trustees.

That comment threatened even more negativity for USC, the university already tied to the most cases in the nationwide scandal. Mr Barrack quickly denied any connection with Mr Trump’s decision, while a USC spokeswoman said the university had no comment on the matter.

Other wealthy and prominent defendants who were caught in the admissions scandal, pleaded guilty and served jail time, include Hollywood actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Mr Zangrillo is among the few indicted parents who chose to keep fighting the charges, and he was scheduled for trial in September.

Explaining its rationale for the pardon, the Trump administration statement argued that Mr Zangrillo's daughter – who allegedly gained admission to USC through a $250,000 (£180,000) bribe that helped portray her as a member of the crew team – was now earning a 3.9 grade-point average at the private Los Angeles institution.

The Republican-appointed federal prosecutor in Massachusetts who has been overseeing the prosecution of the scandal, US attorney Andrew Lelling, expressed surprise at Mr Trump’s action. “It is the highest calling of the criminal justice system to hold all people equally to account, regardless of wealth or privilege,” Mr Lelling said.

Mr Lelling, however, has joined US higher education in offering his own mixed signals about the ethics of wealth-aided admissions, saying from the beginning of the scandal that while bribery of individual employees is criminal, it’s respectable and legal for parents to boost an applicant’s candidacy by making a direct financial contribution to a college.

In his final days and weeks in the White House, Mr Trump had been widely reported as evaluating the use of his power of presidential pardon to help political and business allies who might be useful to him in the future.

Mr Trump formally attributed nine of his other final-day pardons and commutations, all involving defendants charged or convicted in various types of consumer and corporate fraud, to the recommendations of named and unnamed academics.

The one Mr Trump cited most often was Alan Dershowitz, the emeritus professor of law at Harvard University who aided Mr Trump’s first impeachment defence and has been talking of helping in his second.

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