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

·7 min read
William Singer, the admitted mastermind behind the college admissions scandal, leaves the federal courthouse in Boston after pleading guilty on March 13, 2019. (Katherine Taylor/The New York Times)
William Singer, the admitted mastermind behind the college admissions scandal, leaves the federal courthouse in Boston after pleading guilty on March 13, 2019. (Katherine Taylor/The New York Times)

As lawyers gave their closing arguments in the first trial of the college admissions scandal Wednesday, a question hung over the Boston courtroom: Will the jury, in a city where town-and-gown suspicion can be strong, see the trial as a tale of a flawed, possibly corrupt college admissions system, or of the arrogance and immorality of wealthy men?

The lawyers for the two fathers who are defendants in the case, John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz, urged the jury to look not only at the evidence but also at what they said was a lack of evidence to show that the two men had knowingly engaged in bribery and fraud to get their children into college.

They described the men as busy executives and caring but sometimes distracted fathers who only wanted to help their children by making legitimate donations and who trusted William Singer, a star college counselor to the wealthy, to guide them.

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Their children got into the University of Southern California as athletic recruits, but it was Singer, the lawyers said, who engineered the scheme and who kept them in the dark as to his illicit methods, like faked athletic profiles and donations to corrupt athletic officials.

“John is not part of Singer’s con,” Michael Kendall, Wilson’s lawyer, told the jury. “There is no evidence, not even a hint, that John figured out Singer’s scam”

But Stephen Frank, the assistant U.S. attorney who gave the closing argument for the government, scoffed at the idea that Singer and the defendants had to use explicit terms like “bribery” and “conspiracy” in their conversations to show consciousness of wrongdoing.

“They don’t use the word ‘bribe,’ they don’t use the word ‘fake profile,’ because that’s not how criminals talk,” Frank said.

From the opening day of the federal trial three weeks ago, the prosecution tried to steer the jury away from the college admissions system. Rather, prosecutors said the focus should be on the actions of Wilson, a private equity financier and former Gap and Staples executive, and Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts executive.

They are the first to stand trial in the investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues, with many other similarly accused parents choosing to plead guilty.

“This case is not about wealthy people donating money to universities in the hope that their children get preferential treatment in the admissions process,” Leslie Wright, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in her opening statement in the imposing federal courthouse near the Boston seaport.

“The defendants are not charged with crimes for having donated money to USC. If that was all they had done, we would not be here today.”

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

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

The admitted mastermind behind the admissions scheme, William Singer, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government, though he has not yet been sentenced. He ran a California-based college counseling business, called the Key, that included a mix of legitimate services, like tutoring, and fraudulent ones, like helping students cheat on college admissions tests and fabricating athletic credentials, according to prosecutors.

Singer, who is known as Rick, characterized what he was doing as getting students admitted through a “side door” and boasted that he could get the children of wealthy parents designated as varsity-level athletes when they were nothing of the kind.

The government says that he did it by bribing coaches and others who were working with him, at universities including USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown, and that it strains credulity to think sophisticated businessmen like Wilson and Abdelaziz did not realize that. Wilson wrote off his payments as business expenses and charitable contributions, prosecutors say.

Some of the money actually did go to the university’s athletic programs, like $100,000 from the Wilson family, according to prosecutors. Other payments went into the pockets of those involved, prosecutors say.

The jury must decide on charges including conspiracy, bribery, fraud and, in Wilson’s case, filing a false tax return. Wilson’s lawyer said Wednesday that “taxes are complicated; people make mistakes all the time on a tax return.”

Abdelaziz is accused of paying Singer $300,000 to get his daughter, Sabrina, into USC as a top-ranked basketball recruit, even though she did not make the varsity team in high school. Wilson is accused of paying Singer $220,000 to have his son designated as a water polo recruit at USC in 2013 and then going back to Singer in September 2018 to pursue having his twin daughters admitted to Harvard and Stanford.

Singer told Wilson, who had a house in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, “I’ll make them a sailor or something, because of where you live,” according to a recording played in court.

“How did the defendant respond?” Frank said in his closing statement. “He laughed, and then he asked if he could get a two-for-one special.”

The exchange was intercepted in a court-authorized wiretap, and neither man knew that the government was listening in, Frank said. The FBI approached Singer about a week later.

Kendall interpreted the laugh differently. Because of his trusting relationship with Singer, Wilson “didn’t have his antennae up,” he said.

The prosecution also highlighted a similar exchange in which Singer told Abdelaziz that the basketball profile for his daughter was so well done that one of Singer’s associates wanted to use it again “for anybody who isn’t a real basketball player that’s a female.”

To which Abdelaziz replied, “I love it.”

But the lawyers for the two men said in their closing arguments that their clients had never seen the falsified athletic profiles for their children, even though Singer emailed them to them.

The prosecutor said that the protests that neither defendant had gotten the incriminating profile was too good to be true.

“They both missed the exact same email,” Frank said. “Think about the chances of that. They must be the two unluckiest men in the entire world.”

During the trial, the defense lawyers have tried to establish the “mindset” of the two defendants, who did not know each other, by saying they did not realize that Singer, who prosecutors admit kept up a facade of legitimacy, was lying to them.

“It’s not illegal to do fundraising, not illegal to give money to a school in the hopes that your kid will get in,” Brian Kelly, Abdelaziz’s lawyer, said. “So that’s his mindset.”

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

And the details can be complicated.

For one thing, Wilson’s son, Johnny, really was a competitive water polo athlete in high school; he was a fast swimmer and “a quiet grinder” who had the fortitude to “just put your head down and swim,” his high school coach, Jack Bowen, testified for the defense. But Bowen also testified that some elements, like a few awards, of the athletic profile that Singer submitted to USC on the student’s behalf were false.

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

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