John Wilson, the private equity investor who received the longest prison sentence (15 months) of any parent nabbed in Operation Varsity Blues, will stay out of jail during his appeal, a federal judge in Boston held on May 19. Last fall, a jury convicted Wilson on wire fraud, bribery and false tax return charges in the wake of his paying more than $1.2 million to ensure his son and twin daughters were admitted into USC, Stanford and Harvard as members of water polo and sailing teams.
Judge Nathaniel Gorton issued the order after prosecutors—who previously demanded that Wilson be held behind bars during his appeal—withdrew their opposition. Wilson maintained his right to appeal would have been rendered “illusory” if he had to serve the sentence while the case played out because the proceedings could stretch well into 2023, when Wilson might have already served most or even all of his sentence.
In a notice of non-opposition filing on May 11, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins wrote, “the government no longer believes it necessary to expend additional Court and government resources to address the bail issue.” At the same time, Rollins insisted that Wilson has “failed” to raise a “substantial question of law or fact that is likely to result in a reversal or an order for a new trial.”
In a statement, Wilson’s attorney, former U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, contends Wilson has “strong grounds for appeal.”
Through his legal team, Wilson insists that he was wrongly grouped in a scandal that involves Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and other celebrity parents and that his efforts to help his children were meaningfully different and less blameworthy.
To that point, Wilson is not accused of bribing proctors to boost SAT scores, staging fake photos of his children playing sports, lying that his children have learning disabilities to gain more test taking time or bribing university employees. Wilson also maintains his children were qualified for their admissions on the merits and that none of his money was intended to enrich a school employee. He says he thought the money would enrich the schools and its athletic programs.
Wilson was nonetheless convicted because he donated to a sham foundation connected to Rick Singer, the mastermind of the plot. A former Staples executive who earned an MBA from Harvard, Wilson says Singer duped him as to the legitimacy of the foundation. Wilson asserts he only believed his donation would boost his kids’ chances for admissions, not guarantee them.
Attorneys for Wilson have also attacked the government’s theory of the crime. If Wilson had donated $1.2 million to the universities at issue, the donations not only would have been deemed lawful but likely celebrated by those schools, too. (Wilson’s representatives say he did donate directly to USC, and the school kept the money.) But because Wilson gave to Singer, who in turn utilized his contacts at schools to rig the admissions process, prosecutors looped Wilson into a conspiracy—a conspiracy, Wilson’s attorney insists, that defies logic since Wilson didn’t scheme with other parents and in some instances the parents’ children were competing for the same admissions slots.
The jury didn’t agree with Wilson’s argument, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit might see it differently.
(This story has been updated in the eighth paragraph to note Wilson’s donation to USC.)