Two Parents Are the First in the College Admissions Scandal to Face Trial.
The parents' behavior, USC's admissions methods, and possibly the fairness of the college admissions process are all at stake.
Gamal Abdelaziz, a former hotel and casino executive, is charged with paying $300,000 to have his daughter admitted to the University of Southern California as a basketball player despite having no basketball experience.
John Wilson, a private equity businessman, is charged with paying $220,000 to have his son admitted to the University of Southern California as a water polo player and then arranging to spend another $1.5 million to get his daughters admitted to Harvard and Stanford.
On Monday, the first parents will testify in a landmark college admissions lawsuit that exposed the role of money, athletics, and family privilege in the race for coveted seats at prestigious universities.
In the next weeks, the admissions process's fairness may also be put to the test.
The mastermind of this college admissions scheme, William Singer, alias Rick, a college consultant, has previously pleaded guilty to racketeering and other offenses and collaborated with the government. He specialized in obtaining admission for his clients' children through what he referred to as the "side door" — a process that involved making a donation to an athletic department (or simply paying a coach) in exchange for the student being designated as a recruited athlete, frequently in a sport in which he or she had never participated.
Mr. Abdelaziz and Mr. Wilson's trial will focus in part on whether they believed USC supported the "side door" or whether they intentionally conspired to defraud the university by lying about their children's athletic qualifications and making quid pro quo payments to athletic administrators.
At a recent hearing, attorneys for the defendants stated that they intend to highlight USC's admissions policies and fund-raising operations, particularly as they are connected with the athletics department. The attorneys stated that they would bring evidence demonstrating that the athletic department sought money from candidates' parents in exchange for preferential admissions treatment for years — and that their clients believed they were engaging in a common, albeit unethical, practice.
At the hearing, one of Mr. Wilson's attorneys, Michael Kendall, informed the judge, Nathaniel M. Gorton, that the defense would submit information that "disproves any notion that this is a violation of United States Code."
However, prosecutors assert that USC's admission methods are not on trial, and they detail important components of their case in court records.
According to the records, Mr. Singer told investigators that he counseled Mr. Abdelaziz that his daughter's academic record made admission to USC doubtful. Mr. Singer stated that he advised Mr. Abdelaziz that she would have a greater chance as a recruited athlete.
Mr. Singer informed investigators that, despite the fact that his daughter played basketball in high school, she was not recruited. Thus, the materials indicate that Mr. Abdelaziz assisted Mr. Singer in compiling a basketball profile for submission to USC that contained fabricated achievements.
Mr. Abdelaziz's daughter was admitted to USC as a basketball recruit in 2018 with the assistance of Donna Heinel, the university's former senior assistant athletic director, according to the records. According to the records, Mr. Abdelaziz then transferred $300,000 to a foundation owned by Mr. Singer.
Mr. Singer then began paying Dr. Heinel $20,000 per month in exchange for her aid in recruiting Mr. Abdelaziz's daughter and the children of Mr. Singer's other customers, according to the filings.
Mr. Abdelaziz's daughter never played basketball for USC. Dr. Heinel, along with three other former athletic administrators, has pleaded not guilty to fraud and other counts and is expected to stand trial in November.
Mr. Wilson's prosecution also covers athletics.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Wilson's kid played water polo, but not competitively enough. Mr. Singer, with Mr. Wilson's knowledge, created a phony athletic profile. Prosecutors allege that when the son was admitted, Mr. Wilson paid Mr. Singer $220,000, of which Mr. Singer gave $100,000 to the USC water polo team. After one semester, the son left the squad.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Wilson then agreed to spend $1.5 million to ensure admission for his twin daughters to Stanford and Harvard. According to court filings, Mr. Singer informed Mr. Wilson that the spot at Stanford would be through the sailing team, but the daughter would not have to sail; the spot at Harvard would be through a "top women's administrator" who would select a sport for his daughter.
The United States Court of Appeals stated in a statement that "the trial is about determining whether these two surviving defendants committed a crime." And it has battled the defendants' attempts to obtain documents relating to its tracking of so-called V.I.P. applications. Several current and past members of the USC athletics staff, including former athletic director Pat Haden, have filed petitions to dismiss subpoenas requiring them to appear as witnesses. Judge Gorton has not yet rendered a decision on them.
In a recent hearing, Judge Gorton stated that he would limit the amount of evidence the defendants might bring regarding USC's general admissions policies, stating that "USC is not on trial here."
Uncertainty surrounds the prosecution's decision to summon Mr. Singer as a witness. Typically, the prosecution would want such an important witness to detail the conspiracy to the jury. However, Mr. Singer is a potentially troublesome witness. He has already pled guilty to obstruction of justice for leaking information to some of his preferred clients following his initial agreement to cooperate with federal authorities. He kept contemporaneous notes indicating that federal agents were urging him to lie in recorded discussions with his parents, referring to the funds as bribes rather than gifts. Mr. Singer's attorney and the United States Attorney's office declined to comment.
The experiment was planned to begin last fall but was postponed due to the pandemic. Three additional parents are due to appear in court in January.
Thirty-three parents, as well as a number of coaches and other individuals, have already admitted their involvement in the plan, which included admissions exam cheating. Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were both sentenced to prison for their roles — 14 days for Ms. Huffman for conspiring to fraudulently inflate her daughter's SAT score, and two months for Ms. Loughlin for paying to get her two daughters into USC as rowers. So far, the longest prison sentence imposed on a parent in this case is nine months.
Finally, this trial will take place during the time period when this year's high school graduates are applying to colleges. Michael Bastedo, an education professor at the University of Michigan, said that since the charges were filed in 2019, many colleges have attempted to clean up their athletic recruitment practices, increasing accountability and ensuring that athletic officials do not wield undue influence over admissions.
However, he noted that other benefits enjoyed by wealthy students — such as preference for donors and children of alumni — remain in place, and the public may be forgiven for continuing to view the admissions system as fundamentally unjust.
Mr. Bastedo added that he does not believe the public would perceive a shift in the system — "even if there is some justice in these situations."