BOSTON (AP) — The first trial in the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions bribery scandal will begin this week, with the potential to shed light on investigators’ tactics and brighten the spot- light on a secretive school selection process many have long complained is rigged to favor the rich.
Jury selection is beginning Wednesday in federal court in Boston in the case against two parents former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz and former Staples and Gap Inc. executive John Wilson who are accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to help get their kids into the University of Southern California by falsely presenting them as athletic recruits.
Though they were among dozens of prominent parents, athletic coaches and others arrested across the country when the case exploded into the headlines over two years ago, theirs is the first to go trial.
Defense attorneys are expected to argue that they believed their payments were legitimate donations and that USC’s treatment of their kids was routine for parents with deep pockets.
Prosecutors say the defense is merely trying to muddy the waters in a clear-cut case of lying and fraud.
Since March 2019, a parade of wealthy parents have pleaded guilty to paying big bucks to help get their kids into school with rigged test scores or bogus athletic credentials. The group including TV actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin’s fash- ion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli have received punishments ranging from probation to nine months behind bars.
Now, prosecutors face the challenge of convincing a jury that two of the few remaining parents still fighting are guilty.
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 USC as a basketball recruit. Prosecutors say Abdelaziz signed off an athletic profile that touted the girl as a star, even though she didn’t even make the cut for her high school 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.
An attorney for Abdelaziz declined to comment ahead of the trial, and a lawyer for Wilson didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Defense attorneys have argued in court documents that their clients had no knowledge of any false information submitted about their children. They say USC can’t be a victim of fraud because the school regularly rewarded donors by giving their kids special treatment in admis- sions.
Prosecutors have accused the defense of trying to turn the case into a trial on USC’s admissions policies instead of whether the parents agreed to lie and trump up their kids’ athletic credentials. USC has said it wasn’t aware of Singer’s scheme until 2018 when it began cooperating with investigators.
The judge told the defense at a recent hearing that “USC is not on trial.“ The parents’ attorneys would be allowed to introduce evi- dence that the school admitted other unqualified students whose parents donated, the judge said, only if the defendants were aware of it at the time they paid the alleged bribes.