College admissions cheating case heads to jury
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A federal jury is set to begin deliberations Thursday in the Varsity Blues college admissions case, following a nearly four-week criminal trial for two parents accused of committing fraud and bribery to get their children admitted to the University of Southern California as recruited athletes.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers made closing arguments in the U.S. District Court in Boston on Wednesday, in the first trial in a nationwide scandal that highlights the extreme anxiety around admissions to selective U.S. universities.
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Prosecutors aimed to persuade jurors that defendants John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz, unwilling to settle for an uncertain path for their teens, conspired with a corrupt California college counselor, William "Rick" Singer, who offered a guarantee: In exchange for payments, he would get the teens tagged as recruited athletes, even if they weren’t star players. Several coaches have pleaded guilty to taking bribes from Mr. Singer; two others and a USC administrator are slated for trial in the coming months.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank told jurors Wednesday the defendants knew the money they gave Mr. Singer was to be used as a bribe, whether or not they understood every detail of the plan. Mr. Frank replayed recorded conversations, introduced during the trial, between Mr. Singer and a number of his clients.
He played the audio clips, he said, "So that you the jury would be able to hear these defendants in their own words scheming to trade money for recruitment spots."
Defense attorneys argued that Mr. Singer conned their clients, created the athletic profiles behind their backs and that the businessmen believed they were making lawful donations via Mr. Singer’s foundation.
Prosecutors called 14 witnesses in their case against Mr. Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, and Mr. Wilson, a private equity financier and former Staples and Gap Inc. executive.
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Brian Kelly, Mr. Abdelaziz’s lawyer, said his client "never agrees with Rick Singer to bribe anyone and never agrees to commit fraud."
Mr. Wilson acted in good faith and thought he was dealing with a trusted college adviser, said his lawyer, Michael Kendall.
Forty-seven defendants have pleaded guilty or agreed to do so in Varsity Blues, which emerged in 2019. Mr. Singer has admitted to conspiring with parents and others to fix SAT and ACT scores and to bribe coaches at schools including USC, Stanford, Georgetown, and Yale universities to sneak applicants in through athletics.
Eight others, including Messrs. Abdelaziz and Wilson, have maintained their innocence.