If arranging for a daughter or son to be admitted into college as a fake tennis player or a fake pole vaulter sounds like a bad idea, how about having the child falsely depicted as a football recruit to a storied program?
Marci Palatella, 66, tried the “even worse” option. It failed. Badly.
The CEO of International Beverage paid $575,000 to inflate the SAT score of her son, described as a B student, and get him admitted into the University of Southern California as a Trojans football recruit.
On Thursday, Judge Nathaniel Gorton sentenced Palatella to six weeks in prison, two years of supervised release and 500 hours of community service. The Boston-based judge also fined her $250,000.
Palatella, a Hillsborough, Calif., resident whose Preservation Distillery in Kentucky produces craft bourbon and whiskey, pleaded guilty in August to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud. She willingly partook in a scheme to deprive USC of the “honest services” of their employees—including an associate athletic director who accepted a six-figure bribe.
Like other wealthy parents implicated in Operation Varsity Blues, Palatella paid consultant Rick Singer to fix the rules of college admission for her child. The scheme initially involved a psychologist with ties to Singer providing medical documentation so that the son gained extra time on the SAT. Then the SAT proctor was bribed to “review and correct the answers” after the son took the test in March 2017 to ensure a high score: 1,410 out of 1,600.
In one email to Singer, Palatella committed to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get her son into a top school. She had one condition: “He can never know.”
The football element of the ruse surfaced when Singer emailed Palatella that “the only way” her son would be admitted “is through athletics due to the leeway given athletes.” Palatella initially worried since her son wasn’t a recruited athlete; he had played football but quit due to being too small.
Palatella: “You know that [my son] took a year off football this year and says he just needed a break and will play next year. So given that, and they he’s [sic] not the team’s star but a good solid player, would he really still have an athletic edge? [My son] is a natural but he’s gotten the message that he is not big enough for college football. I think that’s one of the reasons he dropped out. . . . How would he have an athletic edge at a bigger named school given the other players are huge?”
Singer: “He needs to get in through Football so my relationship at that levels gives [him] a shot since that is the sport with the lowest grades. Notre Dame and Vandy lowest football players are 3.4 and have to be big time players. Cannot hide him there.”
In July 2017, Palatella emailed Singer a photo of her son wearing a football uniform. She asked, “Will this work?” Singer found the photo acceptable for purposes of their plot. He then forwarded it to Laura Janke, a former USC assistant women’s soccer coach. Janke—who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering—had crafted an illicit business where she designed fake athletic profiles for college applicants. Janke then used the photo, along with other materials she found on Google, to create a football profile. The profile falsely claimed the son was a defensive lineman and long snapper and that his team won local and state championships.
While making a fake, but believable, profile of a USC football recruit sounds arduous, Palatella’s son at least had football genes. His father, Lou Palatella, played guard for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s.
In November, a USC “insider” furthered Palatella’s fraud. Donna Heinel, the senior associate athletic director, dishonestly presented the son’s credentials to the USC subcommittee for athletic admissions. The son, who wasn’t a football recruit and who had an illegitimate SAT, was described as a recruited long snapper with a high SAT score.
The subcommittee approved him, gushing in a letter he had the “potential to make a significant contribution to the intercollegiate athletic program as well as to the academic life of the university.” Palatella mailed Heinel (who later pleaded guilty to fraud) a check in the amount of $100,000, made payable to USC Women’s Athletic Board. The following May, Palatella’s son received his formal acceptance letter.
The scheme began to crumble in October 2018, when Singer told Palatella that his company, Key Worldwide Foundation, was being audited. The two discussed the risk of a paper trail. She pledged to mislead the IRS if necessary.
In January 2019, Palatella and a “friend” with whom she confided had a text exchange. Federal investigators obtained the exchange, which featured this sequence:
Friend: “I can only think the money was spent wisely for school or else wise.”
Palatella: “I don’t think most of it went to the school between us only. Please never ever repeat anything.”
Two months later, Palatella was indicted.