The first trial linked to the Varsity Blues scandal is officially underway, with defense lawyers heavily emphasizing how the parents accused of fraud and bribery conspiracy were victims in a scheme perpetrated by a con man, according to their opening statements on Monday.
Two fathers, both successful businessmen, are on trial this month over their alleged participation in a widespread criminal scheme to fraudulently secure college admissions for their children.
Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, and John Wilson, former chief operating officer for Gap. Inc., are among 57 people charged by U.S. attorneys and are the first to stand trial following an FBI investigation into a network that allegedly doled out coveted spots to attend U.S. universities in exchange for payments to gatekeepers who circumvented admission procedures.
The investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” led to the arrest and prosecution of high-profile parents, university employees, and advisers. So far, 30 parents involved in the scheme have entered guilty pleas, along with its admitted ringleader, college counselor William “Rick” Singer.
“Rick Singer is at the center of this case,” said Brian Kelly, Abdelaziz’s lawyer.
Singer, who was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., and obstruction of justice, agreed to cooperate with government attorneys. That cooperation helped build the case against the parents who pleaded not guilty.
“Rick Singer is one of the great con men of our time,” said Michael Kendall, Wilson’s lawyer. “He specialized in stealing from rich people. And he stole over half of John's donation to USC. ... He mixed the truth with lies.”
The entire college admissions scheme is “just another example of the way wealth is used to buy privilege, and further erode the ideal of a meritocracy in this country,” Steve Colon, CEO of Bottom Line, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps low-income and first-generation students get into college, told Yahoo Finance.
“While those who break the law should be punished,” Colon added, “we should spend more time addressing the myriad of completely legal ways that money advantages a small number of students in terms of getting into college, earning a degree, and getting a great first job after graduation.”
'Extremely skilled con man'
Abdelaziz and Wilson pleaded not guilty to charges similar to those faced by other defendants, including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, honest services mail and wire fraud, as well as conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery. (Wilson also pleaded not guilty to filing a false tax return.)
Abdelaziz was the former president and executive director of a Wynn Resorts subsidiary in Macau, China, and opened the Wynn Palace Cotai casino project. He lives in Las Vegas.
Abdelaziz had allegedly paid USC to get his third daughter admitted.
“He had no inkling that Singer was a skilled con man, and make no mistake — that’s what Singer is, an extremely skilled con man,” his lawyer argued in court.
His daughter was in school in Hong Kong when Abdelaziz worked in Macau, China. According to the criminal complaint, Singer also portrayed Abdelaziz’s daughter as a stellar athlete, creating a fake profile decorated with various accolades.
Abdelaziz allegedly paid $300,000 in 2018 to get his daughter into USC as a women’s basketball recruit by creating a fake recruitment profile that made up international basketball awards. According to the complaint filed by the U.S. government, this included the daughter receiving numerous falsified honors such as the “Beijing Junior National Team,” “Asia Pacific Activities Conference All Star Team,” and “Hong Kong Academy team MVP.”
Kelly disputed the fact that his client Abdelaziz agreed to Singer using a fake athletic profile for his daughter and that Abdelaziz read an email about the fake profile.
“There'll be zero evidence that he looked at that fake profile because he didn't,” Kelly stressed.
Kelly also played a video of Singer talking to Starbucks employees in which Singer brags about how he did “761 side doors into the best schools in America.”
According to the video presented in court, Singer said that the front door is one that students get through based on their own skill or merit, “back door’s through institutional incentives, all the people writing major, big checks,” and the side door is to figure out how to do that “for one-tenth of the money.”
'Master of manipulation'
Wilson is a founder and CEO of a private equity and real estate development firm. Based in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, he previously worked as a senior-ranking executive at Staples, Gap, Old Navy, as well as Bain & Co.
Wilson allegedly paid a total of $1.72 million to Singer, according to prosecutors, which involved allegedly paying $220,000 in 2014 to get his son into USC as a men’s water polo team recruit by conspiring to bribe the water polo coach, Jovan Vavic, and $1.5 million in 2018 to get his two daughters into Stanford and Harvard as recruited athletes. (Vavic is scheduled to stand trial in mid-November.)
Wilson’s attorney, Mike Kendall, argued that Wilson did not have “any connection or knowledge that there was any bribery. ... The evidence will show John is book smart and engineering smart, but Singer is a different kind of smart — he’s a master of manipulation.”
Kendall also painted a picture of Wilson’s beginnings as humble.
“John was born in absolute poverty. In the late 1950s, his mother got pregnant at 15,” said Kendall. “Her father was from a conservative family from Puerto Rico, and he threw her out of the house. She became a single mother with several children and a ninth-grade education. John started life in a public housing project in Hartford, Connecticut. He told Mr. Singer, the name Wilson came from the father who adopted him. Till this day, John has no idea who is his biological father. He has a 23andme test.”
Kendall added that “what John did know was that his children had real accomplishments." His son was “a star high school water polo player and swimmer and was qualified for USC. He was on the USC water polo team his freshman season and left because he had a third concussion.”
The twins, whom he allegedly paid $1.5 million for to get onto the sailing teams at Harvard and Stanford, “scored really well in the ACT test for college entrance, one got a perfect score, the other one got almost a perfect score,” said Kendall. “He never talked about misrepresenting their athletic abilities.”
On Monday, the government called on Bruce Isackson as its first witness, a real estate developer from Hillsborough, California, who was also involved in Singer’s scam. Isackson and his wife pled guilty to 2019 for paying $600,000 to get his daughters into USC and UCLA.
Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.