The Varsity Blues Trial: What We Learned About College Admissions

As lawyers present their arguments in the first college admissions scandal trial on Wednesday, one question may loom over the Boston courtroom: the jury, in a city where suspicion of the city and the dress may be strong, will he see the trial as a story of a flawed and possibly corrupt college admissions system, or the arrogance and immorality of rich men?

Since the day the federal trial opened three weeks ago, the prosecution has tried to remove the jury from the university admissions system. Instead, prosecutors said the focus should be on the actions of the two men on trial, John Wilson, a private equity financier and former Gap and Staples executive, and Gamal Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts executive.

Prosecutors say the two men bribed a college counselor to get their children into the University of Southern California as bogus sports recruits, while the defendants say they thought they were doing so. legitimate donations. They are the first to stand trial in the investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues, with many other parents similarly charged choosing to plead guilty.

“This case is not about wealthy people giving money to universities in the hope that their children will receive preferential treatment in the admissions process,” Leslie Wright, deputy US lawyer, said in her statement. opening remarks in front of the imposing Federal Court near Boston Harbor.

“The defendants are not charged with crimes for donating money to USC. If that was all they had done, we wouldn’t be here today.”

The trial is taking place in the same courthouse where, three years ago, Harvard was accused of systematically discriminating against Asian American applicants in admissions.

During this trial, a packed house listened with enthusiasm to testimony on how certain candidates with donor connections might be placed on the “Dean’s List of Interest”; others could be designated as sports recruits, which gave them an increased chance to enter. The plaintiffs read aloud a 2013 email from the dean of Harvard Kennedy School in which he thanked the dean of admissions for admitting “and exulted that someone” has already entered a building. “

A federal judge and an appeals court have found Harvard did not discriminate, and the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In the current case, prosecutors must overcome the ingrained suspicion that college admissions are tainted, said Jeffrey M. Cohen, former federal prosecutor and associate professor at Boston College Law School. “The defense objective is to suggest that, although unpleasant, the defendants were playing with the rules as they understood them,” Cohen said.

On the flip side, Mr Cohen said, the jury can see that a line has been crossed in an unsavory system. “We have generally accepted that if you donate a building to a university, you have a certain preference to enter,” he said. “We don’t agree that if you lie and cheat to get in, you should get in. “

The mastermind behind the admissions program, William Singer, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government, although he has yet to be convicted. According to prosecutors, he ran a college consultancy firm in California called The Key, which included a mix of legitimate services, like tutoring, and fraudulent services, like helping students cheat on college admissions tests. and to manufacture sports diplomas, according to prosecutors.

Mr Singer, known as Rick, referred to what he was doing as having students admitted through a “side door” and bragged about being able to have children of wealthy parents designated as college-level athletes then. that they were nothing of the sort. .

The government says it did this by bribing coaches and others who worked with him, at schools like USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown, and it puts a strain on gullibility to think that sophisticated businessmen like Mr. Wilson and Mr. Abdelaziz did not realize that. Mr Wilson wrote off his payments as business expenses and charitable contributions, prosecutors said.

Mr Abdelaziz is accused of paying Mr Singer $ 300,000 to have his daughter, Sabrina, join USC as a top basketball rookie, even though she was not part of the college team in high school. Mr. Wilson is accused of paying Mr. Singer $ 220,000 to have his son designated as a water polo recruit.

Some of the money actually went to college athletic programs, like the Wilson family’s $ 100,000, according to prosecutors. Other payments went into the pockets of those involved, prosecutors said.

Five years later, Mr Wilson agreed to pay $ 1.5 million in what Mr Singer called “donations”, according to the prosecutor’s opening statement, to help his twin daughters get into Stanford and Harvard. . Mr Singer offered to introduce them as sailors because their father had a home in Hyannis Port, Mass., Although Mr Wilson refused that whoever wanted to go to Stanford hated sailing. At the time, Mr Singer was cooperating with the government, which had concocted the ruse to see if Mr Wilson would agree, according to the prosecution.

During the trial, defense lawyers attempted to establish the “state of mind” of the two defendants, who did not know each other, saying they did not realize that Mr. Singer, who prosecutors say , kept a facade of legitimacy, lied to them.

“It is not illegal to raise funds, nor to donate money to a school in the hope that your child will enter it,” said Brian Kelly, lawyer for Mr. Abdelaziz. “So that’s his state of mind.”

Mr Cohen, the law professor, said the details of the testimony could make a difference there.

Bruce Isackson, one of the parents who pleaded guilty, choked on the stand as he testified for the prosecution in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. He said he asked to have his name removed from a place of honor at his children’s school because he was so embarrassed about his role in the varsity blues scandal.

“Your situation was unique to you, wasn’t it? Asked Mr Kelly, who was part of the team that pursued mobster James (Whitey) Bulger. “You don’t know what the state of mind of those other parents was.”

“I couldn’t have known,” replied Mr. Isackson.

Yet, later in his testimony, Mr. Isackson, a real estate developer in the San Francisco area, categorically claimed that the scheme described by the government was as clear as day. “You would have to be an idiot” not to know what was going on, he testified.

But the details can be complicated.

For one thing, Mr. Wilson’s son Johnny was truly a competitive high school water polo athlete; he was a fast swimmer and “silent crusher” who had the courage to “just put his head down and swim,” his high school coach, Jack Bowen, said in defense. But Mr. Bowen also testified that certain elements, such as a few awards, of the athletic profile that Mr. Singer submitted to USC on behalf of the student was false.

And at the end, Mr. Bowen testified that he was “a little surprised, I wouldn’t say shocked” that Johnny Wilson was admitted.

Kitty bennett and Jack Begg contributed research.

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