Varsity Blues update: Interesting lessons

Remember the college entrance exam scandal, code named Varsity Blues by the FBI, where Rick Singer was caught charging parents large sums and using the money to bribe coaches or test proctors to get kids into colleges? Almost all the parents pled guilty and have now been sentenced. Most of the coaches or others on Singer’s side of things have also pled guilty and been sentenced. For the parents, most got a minimal amount of jail time, measured in days or weeks, probation, and hundreds of hours of community service and fines, usually in the tens of thousands of dollars. You can see the results to date at the Department of Justice Varsity Blues website.

There are some exceptions. Some of the more egregious cases got several months in jail and larger fines, especially those who didn’t cooperate and who took a while before deciding to plead guilty. Some parents were more actively and knowingly committing fraud than others which is another reason sentences varied. Then there are those who went to trial. All but one were convicted by a jury. They all got harsher sentences, no doubt based their failure to accept responsibility, i.e. plead guilty. John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz are such examples with sentences over one year and fines or restitution ordered in the hundreds of thousands. The one parent who went to trial and was acquitted (Khoury) was an oddball case. He gave money to a coach and his daughter got into the college, but he’s the only one who didn’t use Rick Singer. He paid the coach directly, and it appeared the girl got in on her own merit, not because of the payment to the coach. Those who cooperated with the FBI early, testified against others, and pled guilty early got the lightest sentences. Take a look at Bruce and Davina Isackson for an example of that. No jail time, minimal fines. The only other complete oddball is Robert Zangrillo, a wealthy Florida real estate mogul who was pardoned by Donald Trump just before he left the presidency. I don’t know if he was just a kindred soul or money changed hands, but Zangrillo looked every bit as guilty as all the others.

The pattern is similar for the coaches, test proctors, and other non-parents. Those who pled guilty got short sentences, often home confinement instead of prison (Covid may have played a role in that since their sentences generally came later). Gordon Ernst, the Georgetown tennis coach, pled guilty but still got 30 months jail time and was ordered to pay over three million in restitution. He was obviously the most active and corrupt of the coaches, conspiring directly with Singer on multiple occasions. One coach, Jovan Vavic, went to trial, was convicted by the jury, but won the right to a new trial on appeal. He’s not out of the woods yet. He can be retried and it is cases like this that keep the case alive. He’s also on the hook for another long round of legal bills, win or lose. Rick Singer has yet to be sentenced. Once he got caught, he cooperated fully with the FBI, but he is clearly the mastermind and guiltiest defendant. They’re waiting for the last case(s) to be resolved so that he can testify against Vavic and possibly a coach named Ferguson who has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. Many of the coaches probably lost their jobs and will never find another in the field, but I don’t have statistics on that. Those sentenced all had to repay the money they or their schools received. The schools mostly got the money and got off scot-free.

There is much criticism of plea bargaining and its role in our justice system, but like it or not, this case is a great example of how it works. Admit your guilt, testify against your fellow defendants, and get a light slap on the wrist along with some embarrassment not only for your criminal acts, but also maybe for being a “rat” or “narc”. Take your chances at trial and live through years of legal costs and probably end up with a longer sentence at the end along with more public humiliation for yourself, and in this case, your family.

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