A Trial About Wealth, Privilege and the Murkiness of College Admissions

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In closing arguments, prosecutors want to focus on bribery, but the way universities cater to wealthy families is also on trial.

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As attorneys make their final arguments in the first trial of the college admissions scandal on Wednesday, a question may hang in the Boston courtroom: Can the jury, in a city where City and Gown’s suspicions be strong, consider the trial as one. Viewed as a flawed, possibly corrupt college admissions system, or a tale of wealthy men’s arrogance and immorality?


From the opening day of the federal trial three weeks ago, prosecutors tried to wean the jury away from the college admissions system. Instead, prosecutors said the trial should focus on the actions of two people, John Wilson, a private-equity financier and former Gap & Staples executive, and Gamal Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts executive.

Prosecutors say two men posing as fake athletic recruits bribed a college counselor to bring their children to the University of Southern California, while defendants say they thought they were making legitimate donations. They are the first to stand trial in an investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues, similar to what many other accused parents have chosen to plead guilty to.

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“This case is not about rich people who donate money to universities in the hope that their children will get priority in the admissions process,” Leslie Wright, an assistant US attorney, said in her opening statement in federal court near Boston Harbor. Go.”

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

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

During that trial, a packed house testified to how some applicants with donor links could be placed on the “Dean’s List of Interest”; Others may be designated as athletic recruits, giving them an increased chance of getting in. The plaintiffs read aloud a 2013 email from the dean of Harvard Kennedy School in which he thanked the dean of admissions “for the people you were able to acknowledge” and is pleased that someone “already had one.” Committed to building.”

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

Jeffrey M., a former federal prosecutor and associate professor at Boston College Law School. Cohen said that in the present case, prosecutors must remove the suspicion of college admissions being tainted. “The goal of the defense is to suggest that although distasteful, the defendants were playing with the rules as they understood them,” Mr Cohen said.

On the other hand, Mr Cohen said, the jury can see that a line has been crossed in a tasteless system. “We’ve generally accepted that if you donate a building to a university you get some priority to move in,” he said. “We don’t agree that if you lie and cheat to get in, you should go in.”

The acknowledged mastermind behind the entry scheme, William Singer, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government, although he has yet to receive a sentence. According to prosecutors, he ran a college consulting business out of California called Keys, which included a mix of legitimate services, such as tutoring, and fraudulent ones, such as cheating students on college entrance exams and forging athletic credentials. helping out.

Mr Singer, known as Rick, described what he was doing as a way of getting students admitted through a “side door” and claimed he was allowing children of wealthy parents to reach university level. Can designate as athletes when they were nothing of the sort. .

The government says it did this by bribing coaches and others who worked with them at schools, including USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown, and that it felt the credibility of what it thought were sophisticated businessmen like Mr. Wilson and Mr. Abdelaziz. did not do. . Prosecutors say Mr. Wilson wrote off his payments as business expenses and charitable contributions.

Mr. Abdelaziz is alleged to have paid Mr. Singer $300,000 to get his daughter, Sabrina, to be a top basketball recruit at USC, even though she did not make the varsity team in high school. Mr Wilson is accused of paying Mr Singer $220,000 to designate his son as a water polo recruit.

According to prosecutors, some of the money actually went to the university’s athletic programs, such as $100,000 from the Wilson family. Other payments went into the pockets of those involved, prosecutors say.

Five years later, Mr. Wilson agreed to pay Mr. Singer $1.5 million in “charities” to help his twin daughters get into Stanford and Harvard, according to the prosecutor’s initial statement. Mr. Singer offered to introduce them as sailors because his father had a house in Hyannis Port, Mass., although Mr. Wilson refused, saying that the one who wanted to go to Stanford hated sailing. At the time, Mr. Singer was cooperating with the government, which, according to prosecutors, had devised a ploy to see if Mr. Wilson would go along.

During the trial, defense lawyers tried to establish the “mentality” of the two defendants, who did not know each other, by saying that they did not realize that Mr. , put on the mask of legitimacy, was lying to them.

“Fund-raising is not illegal, it is not illegal to give money to a school in hopes that your child will attend,” said Brian Kelly, Mr. Abdelaziz’s lawyer. “So that’s his mindset.”

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

Bruce Isaacson, one of the parents who has pleaded guilty, died on the stand while testifying for the prosecution in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence. He said that he asked to have his name removed from the place of honor at his children’s school because he was too embarrassed by 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 prosecuted mobster James (Whitey) Bulger. “You don’t know what the mindset of these other parents was.”

“I couldn’t know that,” replied Mr. Isaacson.

Yet later in his testimony, Isaacson, a real estate developer in the San Francisco area, was adamant that the plan described by the government was as clear as day. “You have to be a fool” to know what was happening, he testified.

But the details can be complicated.

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

And finally, Mr. Bowen testified that he was “a bit surprised, I wouldn’t say shocked,” that Johnny Wilson was admitted.

Kitty Bennett And Jack Baig Contributed to research.

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