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Two wealthy dads become first to go on trial in college admissions scandal

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The first trial in the ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ college admissions scandal began in Boston on Monday, with a federal prosecutor accusing two high-powered businessmen of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure spots for their children at the University of Southern California.

Former Las Vegas casino executive Gamal Aziz, 64, and private equity firm founder John Wilson, 62, are charged with paying bribes as part of a sweeping scheme involving California college admissions consultant William ‘Rick’ Singer, who previously pleaded guilty. 

In her opening statement, Assistant US Attorney Leslie Wright told a federal jury in Boston that the defendants tried to pass off their children as athletic recruits with Singer’s help. 

Prosecutors have said Singer masterminded the plot to help his wealthy clients get their children into elite schools through fraud and bribery.

Private equity firm founder John Wilson (C), charged with participating in a scheme to pay bribes to fraudulently secure the admission of his children to top schools, arrives at federal court for the first day of the first trial to result from the U.S. college admissions scandal, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., September 13, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Former Wynn Resorts executive Gamal Abdelaziz (left), and private equity firm founder John Wilson (right), charged with paying bribes to get their children into the USC, arrives at federal court in Boston for the start of their trial in the college admissions scandal Monday

Aziz (center) allegedly agreed in 2018 to pay $300,000 to secure his daughter's admission to USC as a basketball recruit by bribing an official

Aziz (center) allegedly agreed in 2018 to pay $300,000 to secure his daughter’s admission to USC as a basketball recruit by bribing an official

Aziz (left) previously said that he believed the money was a donation to the USC, not a bribe

Aziz (left) previously said that he believed the money was a donation to the USC, not a bribe

‘It was a sprawling conspiracy that extended from coast to coast,’ Wright said on Monday. ‘None of these kids were getting recruited to play collegiate sports without the money.’

Both Aziz and Wilson deny wrongdoing, saying they believed the money was for donations to the universities, not bribes. 

‘The government appears to want to present its one-sided evidence that the ‘school wasn’t okay’ with granting preferential admissions treatment for donations while at the same time blocking the defendants’ evidence that, in fact, the school was okay with this arrangement,’ the two executives’ lawyers wrote in a court filing. 

Defense lawyers are expected to deliver their own opening statements later on Monday.

The two fathers were charged more than two years ago along with dozens of business executives and celebrities in a scandal that exposed the lengths wealthy parents would go to attain spots for their children at top schools as well as inequalities in higher education.

Prosecutors allege that Wilson (center) in 2014 paid $220,000 to have his son falsely designated a USC water polo recruit

Prosecutors allege that Wilson (center) in 2014 paid $220,000 to have his son falsely designated a USC water polo recruit

Wilson (center) is a former Gap Inc and Staples Inc executive who founded Hyannis Port Capital

Wilson (center) is a former Gap Inc and Staples Inc executive who founded Hyannis Port Capital

A federal judge said USC was not on trial in connection with 'Operation Varsity Blues'

A federal judge said USC was not on trial in connection with ‘Operation Varsity Blues’

Fifty-seven people have been charged in the probe since 2019, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who were among 46, including 32 wealthy parents, who have since pleaded guilty.

Loughlin and Huffman received two months and five months in prison, respectively. Douglas Hodge, former chief executive of investment firm Pimco, received the longest sentence of any defendant, nine months in prison.

Aziz and Wilson are the first to be tried, and other defendants face trial in January. 

Aziz, also known as Gamal Abdelaziz, is the former president of Wynn Resorts’ Macau subsidiary. Wilson is a former Gap Inc and Staples Inc executive who founded Hyannis Port Capital.

Prosecutors say Singer through his college counseling business, The Key, offered not just legitimate services to parents worried about their children’s college prospects but also the use of an illicit ‘side door’ to secure them admission.

Prosecutors said the mastermind of the cheating scheme was California college consultant William 'Rick' Singer, who previously pleaded guilty

Prosecutors said the mastermind of the cheating scheme was California college consultant William ‘Rick’ Singer, who previously pleaded guilty

Singer has not yet been sentenced after he pleaded guilty in 2019 to facilitating cheating on college entrance exams and using bribery to secure the admission of students to colleges as fake athletic recruits.

While Singer became a star government cooperating witness, prosecutors on Friday said they do not expect to call him to testify.

Prosecutors say Aziz agreed in 2018 to pay $300,000 to secure his daughter’s admission to USC as a basketball recruit by bribing an official.

Prosecutors allege Wilson in 2014 paid $220,000 to have his son falsely designated a USC water polo recruit and later sought to pay another $1.5million to fraudulently secure spots for his twin daughters at Stanford and Harvard universities. 

Singer allegedly told Wilson he couldn’t secure spots for both girls on Stanford’s sailing team because Singer said the coach ‘has to actually recruit some real sailors so that Stanford doesn’t…catch on.’ 

Prosecutors have accused the defense of trying to turn the case into a trial on USC’s admissions policies instead of whether the parents agreed to lie and trump up their kids’ athletic credentials. USC has said it wasn´t aware of Singer´s scheme until 2018 when it began cooperating with investigators.

Full House star Lor Loughlin and her husband were among 46 wealthy parents who have pleaded guilty in the scandal; she was sentenced to two months in prison

Full House star Lor Loughlin and her husband were among 46 wealthy parents who have pleaded guilty in the scandal; she was sentenced to two months in prison 

Actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty and was handed a five-month prison sentence

Actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty and was handed a five-month prison sentence 

The judge told the defense at a recent hearing that ‘USC is not on trial.’ The parents´ attorneys would be allowed to introduce evidence that the school admitted other unqualified students whose parents donated, the judge said, only if the defendants were aware of it at the time they paid the alleged bribes.

Defense attorneys have seized on notes revealed in court documents last year in which Singer, the admissions consultant who began cooperating with the FBI in 2018 and recorded his phone calls with parents, claimed investigators told him to lie to get parents to make incriminating statements. In the notes Singer took on his phone in 2018, Singer said the agents instructed him to say he told the parents the payments were bribes.

The agents have denied pressuring Singer to lie, but putting Singer on the stand could present the defense with an opportunity to attack his credibility.

‘Operation Varsity Blues’ explained: Key figures and fallout from college admissions scandal

The first trial in the ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ college admissions scandal gets under way on Monday. Here is a look at the key figures and the fallout from the probe.

CHARGES

Federal prosecutors accused 57 people in the largest U.S. college admissions fraud scheme ever uncovered. In it, wealthy people aimed to gain their children spots at elite universities by falsifying entrance exams and bribing coaches to treat them as recruited athletes.

Those charged include parents, the consultant who designed the scheme and university athletic officials.

PLEADED GUILTY

Forty-six people, including 32 parents, have pleaded guilty. Among them was California college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer who designed the scheme.

Parents pleading guilty included actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman; Loughlin’s fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli; former TPG Capital executive Bill McGlashan; Michelle Janavs, whose family’s company created the microwavable snack Hot Pockets; and former Hercules Capital Inc CEO Manuel Henriquez.

Federal prosecutors have said more guilty pleas are possible. Gordon Ernst, a former tennis coach at Georgetown University, is in plea talks, his lawyer has said.

PLEADED NOT GUILTY

The two fathers standing trial on Monday are former casino executive Gamal Aziz, 64, and private equity firm founder John Wilson, 62. They are among those who have pleaded not guilty.

The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, has ordered joint trials for the pair and another group of parents who say they are not guilty. Palo Alto residents Gregory and Amy Colburn and businessman I-Hin “Joey” Chen will face trial in January.

Several college athletic officials charged with accepting bribes have denied wrongdoing as well. In November, Jovan Vavic, former USC water polo coach; Donna Heinel, former senior associate athletic director at the school; and William Ferguson, former volleyball coach at USC and Wake Forest University, will face trial.

SENTENCES

Singer, who is a cooperating witness for the government, has not yet been sentenced.

Loughlin and Huffman received two months and five months in prison, respectively. Douglas Hodge, former chief executive of investment firm Pimco, received the longest sentence of any defendant, nine months in prison.

Parents have also lost high-powered jobs and had to pay fines and perform community service. Beyond prison time, Hodge received two years supervised release, 500 hours of community service and a $750,000 fine.

Former President Donald Trump pardoned one parent, Miami investor Robert Zangrillo.

CHILDREN

None of the children were charged in the case. Most of the parents said their children were unaware of the activity.

When the scandal broke in 2019, colleges including Yale, Georgetown and Stanford withdrew admissions offers or expelled students. Huffman’s daughter was flying to an audition at the acclaimed Juilliard School when the school rescinded the invitation, her father wrote the court.

But a small number of the children were allowed to matriculate or remain enrolled.

The teenagers also faced public embarrassment. One mother told the court that her daughter started having panic attacks. Janavs’ two daughters were banned by their private high school from being on campus and attending events including graduation and prom. 

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