Two weeks after a jury acquitted a Georgetown University dad for charges stemming from bribes to former Hoyas tennis coach Gordon Ernst, a federal judge last Friday sentenced Ernst to 30 months in prison and two years of supervised release. The sentence is the longest yet in Operation Varsity Blues, a scandal involving the prosecution of parents, coaches and admissions consultants who conspired to have high school seniors admitted into elite colleges as fake college athletes.
Last fall, Ernst pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery, three counts of federal programs bribery and one count of filing a false tax return. Ernst, who was also ordered to forfeit $3.4 million in ill-gotten gains, worked with the architect of the pay-to-admit scheme, Rick Singer, who will be sentenced in September. As part of a plea deal, Singer turned records and facilitated recorded calls so the feds could prosecute Ernst and assorted others.
For more than a decade, Ernst helped at least 22 students gain admission into Georgetown as so-called tennis recruits. Ernst, the Justice Department explained, “regularly used at least two, and often as many as five, of the six recruitment slots Georgetown allotted him each year to recruit unqualified students in exchange for bribe payments.”
While there is little controversy over the dubious ethics of using bribes to gain college admissions, classifying this practice as a crime, punishable by imprisonment, has sparked debate. The government’s theory of crime centers on “honest services wire fraud,” which here refers to illicit wire transactions—such as online checking to move bribes—to deprive a university of the “honest services” of a coach or administrator.
The university, in other words, is the “victim,” in that it loses the rightful work of an employee. If the same bribing parent had donated the same amount of money to the university, in hopes of making it more likely the school would admit their child, the donation would not only be lawful but likely garner the school’s praise. Because the donation was a bribe to a coach, however, the payment converts into a criminal act.
Singer’s scheme ensured the issuance of an acceptance letter, whereas a donation to the college wouldn’t guarantee the same. This is the “side door” Singer engineered: Pay him, and, through staged photos, cheating on the SAT and other types of admissions chicanery, the child will be admitted. This side door was more appealing, Singer maintained, than either the “front door”—being admitted to highly selective schools on merit—or the “back door”—legally donating millions of dollars to grease the skids for a kid.
The government’s theory of crime led to dozens of plea deals and a few jury convictions, but it failed with businessman Amin Khoury, whose daughter was admitted into Georgetown as a tennis player after Khoury allegedly paid a bribe of $180,000 to Ernst. Using evidence and testimony showing that elite colleges tend to favor applicants who are from wealthy families, Khoury’s legal team persuaded jurors that what Khoury did was not meaningfully different from what other wealthy parents do—legally—for their kids.