US admissions scandal grows beyond its central organiser

Former biotech chief cooperating in expanded investigation

May 27, 2020

Federal prosecutors in the US college admissions scandal have expanded their probe by convicting the first participant from beyond the world of the California-based consultant accused of orchestrating the fraud.

The defendant, Robert Repella, the former head of a biotech company in the Philadelphia area, pleaded guilty to working with a Georgetown University tennis coach to help his daughter win admission to Georgetown.

Repella, the former chief executive officer of Harmony Biosciences, admitted paying $50,000 (£40,000) to the coach, Gordon Ernst, who was forced out of Georgetown before the scandal became public and is still facing charges in the case.

Under the terms of his plea agreement, Repella agreed that prosecutors will recommend he be imprisoned for 10 months and pay a fine of $40,000 and restitution when he is sentenced in September.

Repella is the 55th person charged in the case and the first without ties to William Singer, the Los Angeles-area academic consultant who connected wealthy parents and their bribe payments with sports coaches and others with influence over college admissions.

The lead prosecutor, US Attorney Andrew Lelling, declined to comment on whether the conviction of Repella – who had not been named publicly in the case beforehand – suggested a significant expansion beyond Singer’s operations.

Mr Lelling’s office did note, however – unlike with other announcements of plea agreements with parents – that Repella has promised to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

With Repella’s plea, Mr Lelling has secured 37 guilty pleas, including those of 26 parents. Beyond Repella’s case, the prosecutions were largely bolstered by Singer, once he was caught, working with investigators to stage and record phone calls.

When Mr Lelling first revealed the scandal in March 2019, representatives of US colleges cited its limited nature – growing solely out of Singer’s activities, with no apparent knowledge of college leadership – as reasons why members of Congress should reconsider their initial threats to pursue some kind of legislative response.

Georgetown, however, pushed Ernst to resign as coach of its men’s and women’s tennis teams after it investigated in 2017 some type of irregularities involving at least two applicants to the university whom he portrayed as worthy of admission based on their tennis-playing abilities.

Ernst then was hired by the University of Rhode Island to coach tennis, a job from which he was forced out after being publicly named in the scandal.

Repella’s daughter entered Georgetown in 2018, the same year he left Harmony Biosciences without explanation. Repella’s daughter remains a student at Georgetown in good academic standing, and Repella told the federal court in Boston during an appearance to enter his guilty plea that she had no knowledge or involvement in the scheme.

Beyond Georgetown, other universities identified by Mr Lelling as places where parents allegedly cheated to help win admissions for their children include Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest and the University of Southern California.

One week ahead of Repella’s plea, the scandal’s highest-profile defendants, actor Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, agreed to plead guilty to having helped their daughters gain admission to USC.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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