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At Operation Varsity Blues college admissions trial, prosecutors presented their case, now allowing defendants to present witnesses.
OPERATION VARSITY BLUES TRIAL UPDATE (#2)
Our team at Prison Professors has closely tracked the developments in the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal over the last two years. Justin Paperny is one of the leading experts on the case and works with our team.
At the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions trial, prosecutors presented their case, allowing defendants to begin presenting witnesses.
A defendant in a criminal trial does not have to present any evidence to defend the case. A criminal defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and prosecutors must prove their case to a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury is not supposed to draw an adverse inference from a defendant’s failure to present witnesses or take the witness stand.
Two of the parents charged in the Operation Varsity Blues investigation are currently on trial, challenging the government’s charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.
Gamal Abdelaziz, 64, and private equity executive John B. Wilson, 62, are two parents fighting the government’s allegations that they committed fraud or bribery. Wilson faces charges for paying $200,000 to obtain his son’s admission to USC as a water polo player and another $1.5 million for his daughters’ admissions into Stanford and Harvard universities as athletes. Abdelaziz is accused of paying $300,000 to get his daughter admitted to the University of Southern California as a basketball player based on false qualifications.
The prosecution presented as a witness an admissions official at the University of Southern California to testify that students cannot buy their way into college. Even if some applicants are in the school’s “special interest” category, that does not mean that people buy their way into college. Special interest categories include athletes and others. Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Rebecca Chassin told the jury about USC’s “VIP list” of applicants who get special consideration as athletes or children of donors.
Prosecutors called Chassin as a witness to show that the college admissions scheme harmed the colleges. Indeed, Chassin testified that USC admissions officials had no idea others had corrupted the process.
For the defense, cross-examination is its most important tool during the prosecution part of the case. The defense team’s job is to convince the jury that the parents thought they were merely playing the donation game when they worked with Rick Singer, this alleged college admissions scam mastermind.
Lawyers for Wilson and Abdelaziz argue that Singer duped their clients into believing they were donating to USC and that hundreds of parents had successfully used his strategy with the consent of the colleges involved.
At the trial, the defense team questioned Chassin about why the school kept a VIP list and whether it swayed admissions decisions. A VIP list or a special interest list suggests that colleges were willing participants in a pay-to-play operation, not victims of federal bribery.
Defense lawyers asked Chassin if she remembered whether the school’s athletic admissions subcommittee had discussed “an East coast student” whose father committed to giving $500,000 to USC? Or did Chassin remember a “walk-on golfer” who would join the team without being recruited? The walk-on golfer’s parents donated $3 million.
Both of those prospective students were on the special list.
“I don’t remember every single student from hundreds of…meetings we had and what information that was available,” Chassin testified.
A lawyer for defendant Wilson also asked Chassin if the subcommittee considered donations that parents of athletes might make to the school, noting that the VIP list included estimates of potential donations.
“We were sometimes aware that there were students who were also of interest to other folks around the university,” Chassin said. But the athletic subcommittee was “focused solely on the students’ athletic talent.” The defense team begs to differ.
When asked about the VIP program at USC, Chassin’s answer was:
“There is a process by which students that are of special interest to constituents around campus will receive a look before their decisions are finalized,” Chassin said, but insisted that USC does not “make offers of admission in exchange for money.”
Chassin’s cross-examination testimony will allow the defense team to argue to the jury that when it comes to wealthy potential donors, college admissions is a game that USC was all too willing to play. Defense lawyers asked Chassin if the admissions prospects of someone connected to people able to donate or raise money are better.
“Many of the students are on [the VIP list] because of the hope that they will, you know, contribute to the university financially,” said Chassin, who has worked in admissions at USC for two decades. “Some of the students are not on there for that reason. We don’t really separate that out in the admission office — we just know that someone around campus is interested in this.”
On cross-examination, defense lawyers elicited from Chassin testimony to establish that athletes recruited to the school by coaches had an 85% to 90% chance of being admitted, compared with 15% for an applicant in the general pool. Chassin’s testimony could help the defense team undercut the idea that college admissions are a straightforward, merit-based process. Instead, the defense team will show that affecting fundraising or playing a sport affects a person’s opportunity.
Chassin could have helped the defense as well when she admitted on cross-examination that Abdelaziz’s daughter, currently a senior at USC, was surprised to learn that her university profile included faked athletic information provided by Singer. The parents claim they did not know of Singer’s shady actions, such as pre[aring fake athletic profiles.
Prosecutors called to the witness stand an Internal Revenue Service agent who testified that Wilson paid $220,000 to Singer as a college admissions consultant and then wrote it off as a business expense and charitable donation on his personal income taxes.
The agent, Colleen Ranahan, told the jury that Wilson was not entitled to the deductions he and his wife claimed on their 2014 joint return because they were personal expenses paid in exchange for something of value: college admission for their son. When it comes to a charitable contribution, a person cannot receive any goods or services in return.
Wilson earned more than $2 million in 2014 and paid more than $200,000 in taxes after deductions. Ranahan testified that Wilson should have paid another $88,546 in personal taxes.
Wilson’s lawyer challenged Ranahan’s audit on cross-examination because Wilson believed the $220,000 he gave Singer was going directly to USC as a donation. In fact, USC even sent Wilson a thank you note for his donation.
Wilson faces charges of filing a false tax return, bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit bribery related to a federal program.
Prosecutors have also presented email evidence against Wilson, indicating how Wilson looked to pass off college consulting payments to Singer as corporate expenses. Prosecutors showed jurors an email Wilson sent to Singer in 2014 after his son got into USC.
“Thanks again for making this happen!” the email read.
“Pls give me the invoice. What are the options for the payment? Can we make it for consulting or whatever … so that I can pay it from the corporate account?”
When Singer replied that Wilson could make it for business consulting fees so that Wilson could “write off as an expense,” Wilson replied, “Awesome.”
Prosecutors rested their case after 11 days of trial.
The prosecution concluded presenting witnesses. Now the ball is the defendants’ court. We do not anticipate that the defense team will present many witnesses. The stage is now set for a battle over whether the college admissions process for wealthy parents is an acceptable pay-to-play process or criminality that includes bribery.
Follow the Prison Professors blog for additional developments in the Operation Varsity Blues trial. We will be updating on the testimony of defense witnesses and closing statements.
Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, regularly assists clients to locate and vet legal counsel experienced in white-collar crime. We also assist clients and their legal counsel with crafting sentencing mitigation strategies.