Donna Heinel USC scandal, fake athletic recruits get top universities

Former United States Department of Commerce Official Pleads Guilty in College Admissions Scandal

Donna Heinel acknowledged to being a part of a massive conspiracy that facilitated the admission of phony athletic recruits to prestigious institutions in exchange for bribes.

A former University of Southern California athletic administrator pled guilty to being a co-conspirator in a massive plot to bribe students into prominent universities by posing as false athletic recruits.

The administrator, Donna Heinel, entered the plea via video conference in federal court in Boston on Friday, less than two weeks before she was slated to stand trial in the case. The charge against her stems from Operation Varsity Blues, an investigation that exposed a corrupt private college consultant, William Singer, working with coaches, test administrators, and wealthy parents willing to pay thousands of dollars in bribes to get their children into some of the country's top universities.

Dr. Heinel, 60, was the scheme's major figure at USC, serving as a senior administrator who managed athlete admissions for nearly a decade prior to her conviction in 2019. Mr. Singer's clients deposited more than $1.3 million into USC accounts held by Dr. Heinel over a four-year period, according to court records, with Mr. Singer eventually establishing a sham consulting agreement that paid her $20,000 per month.

Donna Heinel USC scandal, fake athletic recruits get top universities
According to federal prosecutors, Donna Heinel, a former USC athletics administrator, accepted more than $1.3 million in bribes.

Prosecutors allege that in exchange, she assisted more than two dozen pupils in obtaining admission as recruited athletes.

USC fired her in 2019, following the public disclosure of the probe.

Dr. Heinel worked as a contact between athletic coaches and an admissions subcommittee that took into account athletic recruits. Universities such as USC reserve a specific number of spots for exceptional athletes. Mr. Singer, who pled guilty and is collaborating with the prosecution, recognized this as a susceptible aspect of admissions — a "side door," he called it — and exploited it through a network of insiders to position his clients.

Dr. Heinel stated as part of her plea agreement that she offered individuals to the panel who were not qualified to be athletic recruits, deceiving the subcommittee into believing the prospects were recommended by coaches. Prosecutors allege that she did so in exchange for money from Mr. Singer and his clients.

Dr. Heinel pleaded guilty to wire fraud involving honest services. The government agreed to dismiss further charges and suggest a sentence of 37 to 46 months in jail. Additionally, she will be obliged to forfeit $160,000 in supposed consulting fees. The sentencing date was set for March 11.

In an unexpected turn of events during the hearing, Federal District Court Judge Indira Talwani interrogated both sides for at least an hour over whether payments made to a university fund might be regarded as bribes. Dr. Heinel, who had been responding to questions in a monotone, suddenly perked up and began often nodding, as if encouraging the judge's line of questioning.

The judge's interrogation brought up a bigger concern regarding college admissions — the extent to which admissions decisions are made not solely on academic quality but also on parents' ability to donate money.

"I believe the majority of people would agree that universities and colleges do not always accept applicants with the greatest SAT scores or GPAs," Judge Talwani stated. "That is their option, and nobody would accuse an admissions officer of violating the principle of honest services by accepting a student whose father is donating the adjacent building."

By the same token, she stated, wasn't it likely that the admissions department would not object if it learned that a spot was being reserved not for the best athlete, but for "getting a new gym floor?"

Nina Marino, Dr. Heinel's attorney, compared her client to John Vandemoer, the Stanford sailing coach who pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering charge in the same inquiry. Mr. Vandemoer stated that he presented Mr. Singer's checks to Stanford development officers, who intended to utilize the funds to purchase new boats.

Mr. Singer compensated Dr. Heinel as a consultant, according to prosecutor Kriss Basil. And even if the money went into a fund rather than Dr. Heinel's pocket, he explained, she had access to it, could utilize it for her own projects, and may benefit professionally as a result of it.

"She employs it to advance her personal interests," Mr. Basil explained.

Her plea occurred less than a month after two of her parents, Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, and John Wilson, a private equity financier, were convicted by a federal jury in Boston; they were the case's first witnesses.

Dr. Heinel was intimately involved in the case of Mr. Abdelaziz. Prosecutors asserted that she assisted Mr. Abdelaziz's daughter in gaining admission to USC as a basketball recruit in 2018, despite the fact that she had not made her high school's varsity squad.

Mr. Abdelaziz subsequently sent $300,000 to a foundation controlled by Mr. Singer, prosecutors allege. Mr. Singer then began paying Dr. Heinel $20,000 per month in exchange for her aid in easing the way for Mr. Abdelaziz's daughter and the children of Mr. Singer's other customers, according to court documents. Mr. Abdelaziz's daughter never played basketball for USC.

Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cohen suggested Friday that Mr. Abdelaziz's conviction may have driven Dr. Heinel to sign the plea deal.

"Those charged now know that Abdelaziz's defenses, specifically that this was part of the usual admissions procedure and nothing corrupt, are unlikely to convince a jury," Mr. Cohen said. "Faced with that fact, the defense will struggle to construct a defense, even more so for coaches who are integral to the university's process and not outsiders."

Over 50 parents, coaches, exam administrators, and others have been charged in connection with an admissions fraud involving collegiate athletic programs at USC, Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, and Georgetown. The majority have pleaded guilty rather than risk going to trial.