Former Wynn Macau president Gamal Abdelaziz knew a thing or two about odds when his daughter wanted to attend the University of Southern California five years ago. By paying $300,000 to have her depicted as a top Trojans basketball recruit, the hotel and casino executive boosted her admissions chances from uncertain to near guaranteed.
One problem: The daughter hadn’t made her high school varsity team. Another: The FBI was listening to calls in which Abdelaziz discussed the scheme.
In October, a Boston jury convicted Abdelaziz of fraud and bribery. U.S. District Judge Nathanial Gorton last week denied Abdelaziz’s motions for an acquittal or a new trial. The judge also denied those motions for financier John Wilson, who was similarly convicted and who arranged to have his son admitted into USC as a fake water polo recruit.
Like other parents, Abdelaziz and Wilson hired admissions consultant/fixer William “Rick” Singer to fictionalize their children’s admissions profiles. Singer had an “in” at USC, which made the university—it only admits about 11% of applicants and expects SAT scores in the 1360 to 1530 range—an attractive target. Donna Heinel, then a senior associate athletic director, was bribed to present a fake profile of Abdelaziz’s daughter to an admissions subcommittee. The profile falsely claimed she was Hong Kong Academy’s team captain, had been named team MVP and had earned spots on the Asia Pacific Activities conference All-Star Team and the Beijing Junior National Team.
The daughter matriculated to USC in the fall of 2018. Abdelaziz and Singer discussed by phone how to handle the daughter’s absence from the basketball team.
In one recorded call, Singer explained that Heinel “was asked by admissions as to why [your daughter] did not show up for women’s basketball in the fall.” Singer assured Abdelaziz not to worry since Heinel had answered with a believable lie: The daughter was battling plantar fasciitis and was injured over the summer. Heinel, Singer reported, fibbed that the daughter “would be out for six to eight months.”
Singer told Abdelaziz the phony injury narrative was standard operating procedure for “other families that went through the side door” into elite colleges as fake athletes. Abdelaziz, for his part, pledged that if school officials called about his daughter, he’d stick to the tall tale about an injured basketball player.
Unlike more than 30 of the other parents nabbed in Operation Varsity Blues, Abdelaziz didn’t reach a plea deal with prosecutors. Those who came clean face jail or prison sentences ranging from a couple of weeks to a handful of months.
Abdelaziz, instead, went to trial. Unfortunately for the 64-year-old Egyptian native, a jury convicted him of two charges that carry maximum sentences of 20 years and five years, respectively. Judge Nathaniel Gorton will sentence Abdelaziz in February. Although Abdelaziz won’t receive anywhere near the maximum, he could face several years behind bars.
Attorneys for Abdelaziz argued to Judge Gorton that the convictions are unsupported as a matter of law. Among their assertions were that USC suffered no tangible economic harm. As explained in other Sportico stories, Operation Varsity Blues is predicated on the crime of honest services wire fraud. In this context, colleges are the victims. Because of bribes to college employees, colleges are deprived of employees’ honest services. Judge Gorton was unpersuaded that USC wasn’t tangibly hurt.
Abdelaziz and Wilson can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
(This article was updated in the second paragraph to clarify the FBI surveillance in the case.)