The first trial in the so-called “Operation Varsity Blues” case is getting underway in Boston’s federal court more than two years after prosecutors arrested 50 parents, athletic coaches and others in the scheme that embroiled elite universities across the country. Thirty three other parents have pleaded guilty, including TV actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin’s fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli. The parents have so far received punishments ranging from probation to nine months in prison.
Defense attorneys said former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz and former Staples and Gap Inc. executive John Wilson never discussed paying bribes. They were assured by the admissions consultant at the center of the scheme that what they were doing was a perfectly legal practice to give children of parents with deep pockets a leg up in admissions, the defense said. “It’s not illegal to give money to schools with the hope that it helps your kid get in,” Abdelaziz’s attorney, Brian Kelly, told jurors in his opening statement. “No one ever said bribery to him.” Abdelaziz, of Las Vegas, is accused of paying $300,000 to the sham charity run by the scheme’s mastermind — admissions consultant Rick Singer — to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a basketball recruit even though she didn’t even make it onto her high school’s varsity team.
Wilson, who heads a Massachusetts private equity firm, is charged with paying $220,000 to have his son designated as a USC water polo recruit and an additional $1 million to buy his twin daughters’ ways into Harvard and Stanford. Prosecutors say the parents were well aware their payments were designed to get their kids into school as athletic recruits with fake or embellished credentials as part of Singer’s so-called, side-door scheme.
“That is what this case is about: lies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright said. It’s “not about wealthy people donating money to universities with the hope that their children get preferential treatment in the admissions process.” Prosecutors will show jurors emails and phone calls between Singer and the parents that the admissions consultant recorded after he began cooperating with investigators in 2018. In one phone call, Singer told Abdelaziz that a USC official told him Abdelaziz’s daughter’s fake athletic profile was so well done that she wanted him to use that profile going forward for “anybody who isn’t a real basketball player that’s a female,” according to court documents.
“I love it,” Abdelaziz responded. Singer, who has pleaded guilty but hasn’t been sentenced yet, was long expected to be the government’s star witness. But prosecutors have said they won’t call the admissions consultant to the stand. Defense attorneys suggested they will seize on that decision to try to sow doubt in the government’s case. “The case revolves around Rick Singer, the whole investigation, it’s why we’re here. And now in opening statements, the government says ‘never mind, we’re not calling him.’ Think about that when you eventually deliberate,” Kelly told jurors.
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