Going by the odds, Amin Khoury’s decision to go to trial seemed dubious.
The businessman faced felony charges over his daughter’s admission into Georgetown University as a tennis recruit seven years ago. Dozens of other parents nabbed in Operation Varsity Blues copped plea deals. The few others that tried their luck with juries were convicted. One was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Those outcomes aren’t surprising given that defendants in federal criminal trials usually lose. According to Pew Research, federal juries convict 86% of criminal defendants. That’s one reason why 90% of defendants facing federal charges plead guilty.
But Khoury rolled the dice—and won—in part by presenting evidence that wealthy parents whose children apply to elite colleges often receive breaks in admissions’ processes.
In Boston’s federal district court on June 16, a jury returned a verdict form with “not guilty” checked next to counts for conspiracy and bribery.
“The odds are very steep for any defendant who goes to trial in a criminal case,” Khoury’s attorney, Eóin P. Beirne of Mintz Levin, acknowledged to Sportico. “That’s certainly part of the calculus for any defendant and defense team.”
But Beirne stressed that a defendant’s odds aren’t static. He was confident in those for his client.
“When a defendant can match weight with the government and make sure the jury is properly constituted,” Beirne underscored, the calculus changes. In that scenario, “the evidence comes in evenly and the evidentiary rulings don’t favor the government.” The odds of an acquittal, then, become “significantly improved.”
Prosecutors accused Khoury, the son of former KLX Energy CEO Amin Khoury, of agreeing to bribe then-Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst with $180,000 in 2014. The alleged payment was transmitted through a tennis recruiter, who Khoury was accused of paying $20,000.
In exchange, Khoury’s daughter was designated as a Hoyas tennis recruit. That designation boosted her chances for acceptance into Georgetown. The university is among the most difficult to get into, with a 12% acceptance rate and very high SAT and GPA profiles.
Although Khoury wrote an email to the director of college counseling at his daughter’s high school insisting that she “had the raw ability to lead the [Hoyas] if she was red-shirted and if Gordo gave her the coaching that is required to advance a talented but raw kid into a varsity leader,” prosecutors portrayed Ms. Khoury as a middling high school athlete who was undeserving of DI recruit status.
Khoury’s legal team advocated for their client through a variety of defenses.
For one, they stressed that Khoury never worked with Rick Singer, the infamous admissions consultant at the center of the scandal and the person linked to other Varsity Blues cases. Singer is accused of orchestrating various shenanigans, such as bribing proctors to boost SAT scores, bribing university employees to reclassify applicants and staging photos of children playing sports. Singer is played by Matthew Modine in the Netflix movie, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, which depicts Singer’s clients–the parents–as unscrupulous and extravagant. Khoury, his attorneys have stressed, had nothing to do with Singer.
Khoury’s attorneys also emphasized that prosecutors didn’t allege Ms. Khoury was unqualified for admission to Georgetown. Likewise, her application didn’t contain false statements or other defects.
The defense further underscored that Georgetown—the purported victim of fraud in that it was deprived of staff’s honest services—didn’t suffer a legally recognizable form of harm. Georgetown never offered Ms. Khoury financial aid or a scholarship of any kind. Her father, the defense insisted, paid her full tuition, as well as applicable deposits and fees. From that lens, Georgetown received the full economic benefit of the admission slot.
One of the more compelling defenses, Beirne told Sportico, was portraying Georgetown’s admissions process as tending to favor children from wealthy families. This sentiment appeared to resonate with jurors. They were tasked with deciding if Ms. Khoury received the kind of extraordinary break that warranted sending her father to prison. If jurors believed that Georgetown has a practice of favoring children of the affluent, then Khoury’s efforts would have seemed more banal, and Georgetown less of a victim.
“Evidence we were able to obtain on the eve of trial really helped us make sure the witnesses, including those from Georgetown, had to be candid about the plus factors given to the children of wealthy applicants,” Beirne recalled, “I think this was critical to the jury’s determination. Most every college and university has a sophisticated fundraising apparatus. They know who has money to give and it is most certainly a factor in college admissions. Those donations are necessary to support scholarships, faculty pay and underfunded sports teams.”