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 Pay To Play Or Bribes? (Update#3) 

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Michael Santos

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A jury found two parents guilty of fraud and bribery in the college admissions scandal dubbed Varsity Blues.

PAY-TO-PLAY OR BRIBES? VARSITY BLUES TRIAL VERDICT IS GUILTY 

INTRODUCTION

Before the Operations Varsity Blues trial began in September, education expert Akil Bello wrote an article for Forbes asking these questions:

  • “Is the admission of Jared Kushner to Harvard after his father pledged to donate $2.5 million a bribe?” 
  • “Is the admission of Dr. Dre’s daughter to USC after he donated $70 million a bribe?” 
  • “Is giving priority to rich-kid sports like lacrosse, fencing, and water polo in likely anticipation of enrolling a full-pay student or getting a donation, a bribe?” 
  • “Where is the line between shrewd business practice and bribe for admissions?

This series of questions captures the critical issue in the first trial stemming from Operation Varsity Blues: were the actions of these parents part and parcel of an accepted pay-to-play college admissions system? Or were they illegal bribes?

Unfortunately for Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson, two parents and defendants in the first Varsity Blues trial, the jury recently found that their conduct was illegal. 

Their attorneys have vowed to appeal. 

Sentencing hearings for each defendant will take place in early 2022. They each face up to 20 years in prison. 

Evidently,their most immediate challenges relate to sentencing in federal court, including: 

Will they pay the trial penalty at sentencing?

How will their presentence investigations unfold?

What strategies will they use to mitigate the consequences of this conviction? 

*Pro-Tip: Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, regularly works with clients before the presentence investigation and sentencing hearing. We help our clients in crafting sentencing mitigation strategies to obtain better outcomes.

DISCUSSION

As noted above, a jury found parents Mr. Abdelaziz and Mr.Wilson guilty of fraud and bribery in connection with the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Abdelaziz and Wilson are among dozens of wealthy parents who paid millions to get their children into top US colleges using fraudulent college admission test scores and fake athletic credentials. 

Background

Approximately 50 people faced federal criminal charges for participating in the college admissions scheme, with at least 33 parents accused of paying consultant Singer $25 million in bribes between 2011 and 2018. Among those were Lori Loughlin, her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Felicity Huffman. Loughlin’s sentence was two months in jail, while her husband received a sentence of five months. Huffman’s sentence was 14 days in jail. 

The Trial Defendants

Wilson and Abdelaziz were the only defendants at this first trial. 

Mr. Wilson, a real estate and private equity investor, was found guilty of paying out more than $1.7 million to try to get his children into Stanford and Harvard. The jury found him guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery and filing a false tax return.

Mr. Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery for paying out more than $300,000 and submitting false athletic credentials for his daughter to the University of Southern California.

At the trial, their defense teams unsuccessfully argued that Rick Singer, the college admissions counselor who masterminded the whole scheme, deceived them. 

Singer pleaded guilty in 2019 of conspiracy to commit money laundering and racketeering, conspiracy to defraud the US, and obstruction of justice charges. He did not testify at the trial. 

Prosecutors did not need to call Singer to the stand because they had him on recorded calls played for the jury. Also, prosecutors were likely concerned about the impression Singer would make before the jury if he appeared in person. Finally, on cross-examinations he would have been subject to harsh questioning about his motives for cooperating with the government. Obviously, Singer is hoping for reduced prison time in exchange for assisting the prosecution.

Defendants Wilson and Abdelaziz also argued at trial that the payments they made were not bribes. Rather, they intended them as donations to the colleges they were targeting for their children. Wealthy parents routinely make such large donations in advance of their children’s applications. People often refer to this as a pay-to-play college admissions system for the wealthy, which many colleges and universities condone and encourage. 

In short, the defendants argued that they believed their payments were legitimate donations and pointed the finger at Singer. They claimed not to know that Singer was using their money to bribe school officials or that he was falsifying athletic credentials on behalf of their kids.

But the prosecution had evidence that at least Abdelaziz could not refute. 

While Abdelaziz denied knowing about his daughters’ fake athletic profile, prosecutors played for the jury recorded phone calls between Singer and Abdelaziz. In one call, Singer told Abdelaziz that an assistant athletic director at USC approved of his daughter’s fake athletic profile, and wanted Singer to use that profile going forward for “anybody who isn’t a real basketball player that’s a female.”

The jury heard Abdelaziz respond to this by saying “I love it.”

Neither Wilson nor Abdelaziz took the stand in his own defense. 

In the end, the jury did not accept the defendants’ explanations and swiftly convicted both parents of bribery and fraud.

Most other parents who have pleaded guilty, accepted responsibility and received reduced sentences, Wilson and Abdelaziz took the risk of a jury trial. So far, the parents in the case have received punishments ranging from probation to nine months in prison. 

Other Upcoming Trials?

Three other parents who allegedly paid money to Singer to bump their children’s college entrance test scores have yet to resolve their charges and are on the trial calendar. Also, two former coaches from Wake Forest University and the University of Southern California, and a former athletic-department administrator for USC are holding out for a trial. 

It remains to be seen whether, in the wake of the first trial guilty verdicts, these additional defendants will go forward with trial or attempt to plea bargain with prosecutors. 

Defendants’ & Prosecutors’ Reactions to Guilty Verdict

As expected, prosecutors appear very satisfied with the guilty verdicts against Wilson and Abdelaziz on all counts. 

“What they did was an affront to hardworking students and parents, but the verdict today proves that even these defendants — powerful and privileged people — are not above the law,” Acting Massachusetts US Attorney Nathaniel Mendell told reporters.

After the guilty verdict, Abdelaziz’s lawyer told reporters outside the courthouse that he intends to appeal. “It’s obviously not the result he was looking for,” his attorney said to reporters. “But that’s our system and that’s why they have appellate courts, so that’s what we’ll be doing next.”

The defense lawyers’ strategy portrayed Singer as a con man who manipulated the parents and assured them his college admissions side-door scheme was legitimate and endorsed by the schools. The defense also hoped to undermine the prosecutors’ case by questioning why they chose not to call Singer to testify in front of the jury. 

“John is not part of Singer’s con. There is no evidence, not even a hint, that John figured out Singer’s scam. The truth is simple: John is Singer’s victim, not once but twice,” Wilson’s lawyer told jurors in his closing argument. 

The jury in the case disagreed, convicting Wilson and Abdelaziz on all counts.

CONCLUSION

The best advice for anyone convicted of a federal white-collar criminal offense and facing a sentencing hearing is to be proactive. There are many steps people can take to make a significant difference in their sentencing outcomes (and beyond). It is wise to learn as much as possible about the presentencing investigation and the sentencing process. 

The calculus is different for defendants who pleaded guilty versus those convicted at trial. We have discussed the trial penalty at length in previous blogs, and there is a significant risk that the trial penalty will be an issue for Wilson and Abdelaziz. A lower sentence that might have been available fro Wilson and Abdelaziz before the trial has now vanished and prosecutors are likely to seek significant prison time. 

Click here for further discussion of the trial penalty. 

Understanding the Trial Penalty

As noted above, Operation Varsity Blues parents who pleaded guilty have received punishments ranging from probation to nine months in prison. Wilson and Abdelaziz will likely receive more than nine months in prison due to the trial penalty.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Prison Professors and White Collar Advice, Earning Freedom companies, have a comprehensive library of free articles published on our blogs to help anyone who may find themselves in the same predicament as Abdelaziz and Wilson. 

Here are a few recent blogs to learn more about preparing for the steps that follow a criminal conviction. Also below is an article specifically discussing a recent white-collar bribery conviction.

The Defendant’s Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide To Preparing For Sentencing, Prison and Probation.

White Collar Advice: Prepare

Amazon Employee Pleads Guilty to Bribery (Now Faces Sentencing)

Recent Amazon Employee Guilty Plea

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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