‘Operation Varsity Blues’ Trial Kicks Off as Defense Tries to Shift Blame to Sole ‘Con Man’
Attorneys for the state and defendants gave opening statements this morning in the first trial of the major college admissions scandal codenamed “Operation Varsity Blues,” which broke in 2019 and gained widespread attention for high profile defendants like actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Dozens of parents were charged for paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their kids into colleges as phony athletic recruits or by cheating on standardized tests. So far 32 parents have pleaded guilty.
The trial for Gamal Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts executive, and John Wilson, a private-equity investor, began today, where the two men face charges of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery. Wilson is also charged with filing a false tax return.
At the center of the case is William “Rick” Singer, the college admissions counselor who told his wealthy clientele about a “side door” to college entry for their children that involved giving money to schools or their athletic programs. He pleaded guilty in March to his role in the scam. “I was essentially buying or bribing the coaches for a spot,” Singer said in court. “That occurred very frequently.”
The state said Friday that it does not intend to call Singer as a witness. Legal experts told Law360 that Singer’s shaky credibility might have made him a liability to the prosecution. Even without him taking the stand, recorded calls of Singer speaking with parents in the case will play a role in the proceedings. The defense has questioned the validity of the calls recorded after Singer began cooperating with the state, however, because Singer made notes at the same time suggesting investigators were making him try to get parents to confess to paying bribes. “Loud and abrasive call with agents,” Singer’s 2018 notes read in part. “They continue to ask me to tell a fib and not restate what I told my clients as to where [their] money was going — to the program not the coach and that it was a donation, and they want it to be a payment.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright spoke first, describing Wilson paying $1.5 million to pass his daughters off as sailors to Harvard and Stanford, and Abdelaziz paying $300,000 to send his daughter to the University of Southern California as a basketball recruit, though she wasn’t a stand-out basketball player in high school. They worked with Singer, Wright said, who paid off school administrators to present fake athletic profiles of the students, but they still bore responsibility for what they’d done. “The parents did not come up with the scheme, that was Rick Singer,” she said. “But without them, it never would have happened.”
Wright said it was not sufficient defense to claim that they believed the payments were donations instead of bribes, because parents were still trying to “facilitate the fraudulent admission of these students.” Singer told Wilson’s son, for example, a water polo recruit, that he’d never have to get in the pool. State witnesses will include Bruce Isackson, who with his wife was the first of the parents to plead guilty in the scheme, she said, as well as a former USC soccer coach. The case, Wright said, is about “lies to obtain admissions spots that were bought and paid for.”
Defense lawyers blamed Rick Singer for the scheme and claimed their clients were only guilty of trusting the wrong person. Brian Kelly, Abdelaziz’s lawyer, called Singer a “skilled con man” and showed the jury the note Singer had written suggesting he’d told parents they were paying donations and not payments and saying investigators had raised their voices to him to get parents to admit to paying bribes. He called into question the state’s decision not to call Singer as a witness. “This case revolves around Rick Singer, and now in opening statements, the government says ‘never mind we are not calling him,’” he said. “Think about that.”
John Wilson’s lawyer, Mike Kendall, argued that Wilson’s son really was a talented water polo player and that him not playing during his first season was not unusual for a freshman on the team. He described Singer as “one of the great con men of our time,” and described his method of mixing truth with lies to gain families’ trust and obscure his crimes. Singer suggested a donation would boost Wilson’s son’s application at USC, Kendall said, describing the “side door” as a legal fundraising strategy approved by USC and other schools to raise money for teams and programs. Wilson gave Singer what he believed was a $220,000 donation for USC, Kendall said, but Singer kept $120,000 for himself, unbeknownst to Wilson. “We’re not here to decide whether the college fundraising system could be better,” he said. The issue at hand is that Wilson trusted Singer when he said he was making legal donations. “Mr. Wilson did nothing wrong,” Kendall said. “He trusted a con man who stole his money. That con man knows how to play people better than anyone in this courtroom.”