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 Varsity Blues Trial Update 

Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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Varsity Blues trial includes testimony from parents and coaches about the conspiracy to rig college admissions with bribery and fraud.

OPERATION VARSITY BLUES TRIAL UPDATE

INTRODUCTION

Our team at Prison Professors has been closely analyzing and following the developments in the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal over the last two years. 

Click here for a prior blog post on Operation Varsity Blues: Guilty Plea or Trial? Operation Varsity Blues: Guilty Plea or Trial

Today’s blog post highlights some of the evidence put forward by the prosecution at trial so far. 

We also review an exception to the hearsay rule and the constitutional right to cross-examination. The ability to cross-examine prosecution witnesses is the most critical tool for the defense team during this phase of the trial. 

DISCUSSION

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. 

These two parents chose a jury trial to adjudicate their cases, foregoing a plea deal like most parents in the case so far. They are the first of 57 people charged in the investigation to face trial, and 46 people have already pleaded guilty.

Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson are on trial on charges they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to help get their children into the University of Southern California (USC) by falsely presenting their kids as athletic recruits. Prosecutors also claim that Wilson paid more than $1 million to buy his twin daughters’ ways into Harvard and Stanford.

Prosecutors maintain Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts Ltd executive, and Wilson, the founder of real estate and private equity firm Hyannis Port Capital Inc, paid Singer to secure college spots for their children as fake athletic recruits through bribery.

TRIAL HIGHLIGHTS TO DATE

The government’s parade of witnesses in the trial so far includes other parents who pleaded guilty to paying bribes and making fake donations as part of William (Rick) Singer’s college consulting scheme. Other witnesses are government agents presenting emails and taped conversations that the government obtained during its investigation, admitted into evidence under an exception to the hearsay rule discussed below.

OTHER PARENTS

California parent Bruce Isackson testified that Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the scheme to get children fraudulently admitted into top colleges, insisted that to work with him, parents had to follow “his way of doing business.”

Isackson pleaded guilty in 2019, admitting he used Singer to help his daughters gain admission to the University of California Los Angeles and USC as athletic recruits and to forge the results of one of their college entrance exams. He admitted that he paid Singer $600,000 to get his daughters into universities through bribery and fraud. 

Crucially, Isackson admitted on the witness stand that he did not know how Singer dealt with the two parents now on trial, Abdelaziz and Wilson, which is the critical question at this trial. Since Isackson admitted that he has “no idea what [Singer] was doing with other parents,” experts wonder how valuable Isackson’s testimony will be in the end.

Prosecutors asked Isackson: “Without Singer’s help, your state of mind at the time was clear your daughters could not get into the colleges they were applying to?” He answered: “That’s correct, well, those specific schools,” Isackson said.

Under questioning by a lawyer for Abdelaziz, Isackson also acknowledged that Singer could be cagey about the details of his scheme, which could help defendants undermine the prosecution claim that they knew the details of what Singer was doing.

On cross-examination, defense lawyers established that Isackson did not know their clients or what Singer told them.

THE RIGHT TO CROSS-EXAMINATION

The right to cross-examine a witness in a criminal trial is grounded in the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment provides that a person accused of a crime has the right to confront any witness against them.  

The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” 

The Confrontation Clause prevents criminal convictions based upon written evidence (such as depositions or ex parte affidavits) without allowing defendants to face their accusers and test their honesty and truthfulness before the jury.

The Constitution’s Confrontation Clause serves three critical goals:

  • To ensure that witnesses would testify under oath and understand the serious nature of the trial process;
  • To allow the accused to cross-examine witnesses who testify against him; and
  • To allow jurors to assess the credibility of a witness by observing that witness’s behavior when confronted.

EVIDENCE IN EMAILS & WIRETAPS

The evidence presented at trial so far includes emails and taped conversations between Singer and the parents who participated in his scheme. In 2018, the FBI recorded hundreds of hours of tapes after Singer was arrested and agreed to cooperate.

Prosecutors have introduced dozens of emails at trial between Singer, parents, and others, including one from March 2018 in which Singer thanks defendant Abdelaziz for his “generous donation” of $300,000 to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation, adding the money would benefit disadvantaged youngsters.

Prosecutors also played excerpts of taped phone calls between Singer and some of the wealthy parents. Those calls included ones with a parent paying Singer $75,000 to rig his daughter’s ACT exam. During the calls in 2018, the jury heard Singer assure parents that other parents were also participating in his scheme to guarantee college spots. 

In one taped conversation, one parent told Singer that “this feels a little weird.” According to prosecutors, that parent continued to participate in the scheme, eventually pleading guilty and serving one month in prison.

Other tapes played for the jury recorded conversations about what sport the kids should say they play and how much admission to each school would cost. These recordings seem pretty damning. 

By playing recorded conversations of Singer talking to other parents, prosecutors seek to portray all the parents as a group as willing conspirators in a widespread bribery scheme to secure college spots for their children.

HEARSAY EVIDENCE

How can prosecutors introduce into evidence recorded conversations between Singer and other parents who are not defendants in this trial?

The recordings sound like impermissible hearsay evidence – out-of-court statements offered for the truth of the matters they assert. Hearsay is presumed to be inadmissible because it may not be sufficiently reliable.

Moreover, courts are careful not to allow hearsay because allowing hearsay evidence sometimes deprives defendants of their right to confront opposing witnesses.

Hearsay can come in as evidence at trial if it falls within one of the approved exceptions. One exception is for statements made out-of-court by a member of a conspiracy.

Courts allow out-of-court statements by a co-conspirator made during the conspiracy and in furtherance of the conspiracy. They can be presumed reliable because the interests of those in the conspiracy are aligned. In Operation Varsity Blues, prosecutors argue that all of Singer’s taped conversations are evidence against any parent since Singer was working in concert with each of them. 

WILL SINGER TESTIFY AT TRIAL?

Although defendants Abdelaziz and Wilson may relish a chance to cross-examine Singer about his statements on those taped calls played for the jury, it appears that prosecutors have decided not to call Singer as a witness at this trial.

Prosecutors are not obligated to call him live to testify. Having so much evidence on email and recorded tapes admitted into evidence makes it easier for prosecutors to use past recordings. Also, if Singer appears to testify live, the defense could attack him as an admitted felon who is cooperating to cut his own time in prison. Prosecutors could be worried about how he would come across to the jury in person and prefer not to take a risk.

DEFENSE STRATEGY

The defense will continue to hammer the argument that Abdelaziz and Wilson did not intend to defraud or bribe anybody. Instead, they believed they were playing within the rules of a system that allows wealthy families to make significant donations to colleges in exchange for preferential treatment in their children’s admission.  

In their cross-examinations, defense lawyers have suggested that Singer acted on his own, and the Abdelaziz and Wilson thought they were making legitimate college donations. Indeed, counsel for Abdelaziz said last week that Singer created a fake athletic resume for Abdelaziz’s daughter independently, without his knowledge.

ANOTHER GUILTY PLEA

On September 17, 2021, prosecutors announced that Gordon Ernst, the former head coach of men’s and women’s tennis at Georgetown University, agreed to plead guilty for his role in Operation Varsity Blues. Ernst will plead guilty to soliciting and accepting $3.4 million in bribes to facilitate the admission of prospective Georgetown applicants. He will also plead guilty for failing to report many of those bribes on his federal income taxes. The parties have agreed to ask the judge for a sentence of one to four years in prison, two years of supervised release, and forfeiture of $3.4 million.

NEXT STEPS

At the beginning of the trial, the judge estimated the trial would last about one month. Prosecutors will likely call additional parents as witnesses, and several college coaches who pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme are also likely to testify. 

The prosecution has indicated that it would not call Rick Singer as a live witness. 

As of now, we do not know whether either Abdelaziz or Wilson will take the witness stand in their own defense. Of course, under the Fifth Amendment, they are not required to do so.

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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