BOSTON — The first trial in the college admissions bribery scandal began Monday, with defense attorneys seeking to portray two parents accused of buying their children at school as the victims of a burglar who believed that their payment was a legitimate charity.
Defense lawyers said former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz and former Staples and Gap Inc. executive John Wilson never discussed paying a bribe. The defense said they were assured by the admissions counselor at the center of the plan that what they were doing was a perfectly legal practice to give children of parents with deep pockets a leg up in admission. .
Brian Kelly, Abdelaziz’s attorney, told jurors in his opening statement, “It is not illegal to give money to schools with the hope that it will help your child get in.” “No one ever called him a bribe.”
The first trial in the so-called “Operation Varsity Blues” case has been underway in federal court in Boston for more than two years, after prosecutors arrested 50 parents, athletic coaches and others in a scheme that stunned elites across the country. Universities were confused.
Thirty-three other parents have pleaded guilty, including TV actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin’s fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, among others. The parents have so far received sentences ranging from probation to nine months in prison.
Abdelaziz of Las Vegas is accused of paying $300,000 to a fake charity run by admissions consultant Rick Singer – the mastermind of the scheme – to bring his daughter to the University of Southern California as a basketball recruit, even though he also Didn’t make his high school varsity team.
Wilson, the head of a Massachusetts private equity firm, is accused of paying $220,000 to designate his son as a USC water polo recruit and an additional $1 million to buy his twin daughters avenues at Harvard and Stanford. .
Prosecutors say the parents were well aware that their payments as part of Singer’s so-called, side-door scheme were designed to get their children into school as athletic recruits with fake or embellished credentials. Had gone.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright said, “This case is about this: the lie.” It is not about “rich people who donate money to universities with the hope that their children get preferential treatment in the admissions process.”
Prosecutors will show the jury’s emails and phone calls between Singer and the parents were recorded after the admissions counselor began cooperating with investigators in 2018.
In a phone call, Singer told Abdelaziz that a USC official told her that the fake athletic profile of Abdelaziz’s daughter was so well made up that she wanted him to use that profile for “someone who who is not an actual basketball player, which is a woman,” according to court documents.
“I love it,” replied Abdelaziz.
The singer, who has accepted his guilt but is yet to receive his sentence, was long expected to be the government’s star witness. But prosecutors have said they will not call the admissions counselor to the stand. Defense lawyers suggested that they forfeit that decision to try to sow doubts in the government’s case.
“The case revolves around Rick Singer, the whole investigation, so here we are. And now in the opening statement, the government says ‘Never mind we’re not calling him.’ Think about that when you finally have the deliberations,” Kelly told the jurors.
Defense lawyers described Singer as a skilled thief who mixed truth with lies and manipulated parents to fill their pockets. Wilson’s attorney, Michael Kendall, said that Wilson’s son was actually a star water polo player, and Singer told Wilson that a charity could promote students like his son who were eligible to go in.
“Before and after I started working for the government, Mr. Singer repeatedly told John that the side door was perfectly legitimate and exactly what the school wanted,” Kendall said.
The first witness for the government is Bruce Isaacson – who, along with his wife Davina – pleaded guilty in 2019 to paying $600,000 to bring their daughters to USC and the University of California, Los Angeles. The Isaacsons agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
Bruce Isaacson told jurors that Singer claimed he had done the side-door scheme “countless times” and that it was “basically bulletproof”. This promise was important to him and his wife when considering joining the scheme as they said they “didn’t want to be guinea pigs” and “it took a blow” and their daughter was exposed.
The trial is expected to last a few weeks.
All told, about four dozen people have accepted the charges in the case. These include coaches from schools such as Yale, Stanford and UCLA.
Former senior associate athletic director at USC, Donna Heinel, and three coaches are due to stand trial in November. The three other parents are expected to face a jury in January.