John Wilson, a private equity investor, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison for paying more than $1.2 million to secure the admissions of his son and twin daughters into USC, Stanford and Harvard as fake athletes.
The sentence was issued by Judge Nathaniel Gorton on Wednesday and is the longest issued thus far in the Operation Varsity Blues case.
Convicted by a jury last fall on conspiracy, wire fraud, bribery and false tax return charges, Wilson had urged for leniency partly based on letters authored by members of the Kennedy family. Wilson also insisted that his conduct, while blameworthy, was less so than other parents who have been sentenced. Wilson neither arranged for test-cheating nor directly bribed college employees. The children, who didn’t know they were beneficiaries of their dad’s scheme, are depicted as standout students with high SAT scores and, in the case of the son, possessing some degree of athletic prowess.
But Wilson’s indictment offered a less flattering narrative of the 62-year-old millionaire.
In 2013, Wilson and infamous admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer conspired to ensure that the son would be admitted into USC as a water polo player. The son played on a nationally ranked water polo team but was not a USC recruit.
In emails to Singer, Wilson worried how his son’s USC teammates would regard him. “Would the other kids know,” Wilson wrote, “[that he] was a bench warmer side door person?”
The so-called “side door” method of admissions was a fixture of Singer’s scheme. Singer viewed it as a middle ground for parents whose children lacked the credentials to gain admission legitimately and who couldn’t or wouldn’t donate enough millions to the university to secure admissions. The middle ground: Arrange for six-figure bribes to coaches and athletic department officials to pave the way for admissions.
In emails, Wilson sought clarity from Singer on his son’s expected commitment. Wilson worried if “it will be known that he is a bench warming candidate,” later asking, “In your view will he be so weak as to be a clear misfit at practice etc.?”
Singer tried to assuage Wilson, explaining that “travel is only if he is playing, so, no, the commitment is to be on the roster not attend all practices, but he will have to attend drug tests.” Singer added this commitment would be short-lived. “After the first semester,” Singer emphasized, “he can move on.”
USC coach Jovan Vavic was in on the ruse. He emailed a USC athletics administrator with a gushing and fictitious summary of the son’s talents. “[He] would be the fastest player on our team,” Vavic boasted, “he swims 50 y in 20 [seconds], my fastest players are around 22 [seconds], this kid can fly.”
The son was admitted. He quit the team after the first semester.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s company wired $200,000 in payments to Singer’s companies. Singer advised Wilson he could “write off” payments “as an expense,” to which Wilson replied, “Awesome!”
Wilson and Singer teamed up once again in 2015 to ensure that the daughters were admitted into Stanford and Harvard as recruited athletes. The daughters are described as outstanding students (though not outstanding enough to be admitted into Stanford and Harvard) and not especially athletic.
“What if they’re not really that good?,” Wilson inquired. “I mean, they can do some crew, but I don’t know they’re gonna be good. [One daughter’s] not even that good competitively at sailing. She just taught sailing and did sailing [at a] yacht club.”
Singer once again alleviated Wilson’s worries by assuring him the plot would work so long as Wilson paid up. He did, and the scheme worked—until the FBI discovered Singer’s crimes and had him set up eager parents.
In imploring Judge Gorton for leniency, Wilson offered dozens of letters of support, including from neighbors. Wilson reportedly owns a mansion a few blocks from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, an affluent Cape Cod hamlet.
One of Wilson’s advocates was Edward M. Kennedy Jr., an attorney and disability rights advocate. Kennedy’s father served in the U.S. Senate and was the brother of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, whose right leg was amputated due to cancer as a child, praised Wilson for serving as a board member of Cure Autism Now.
Kerry Kennedy, an attorney whose father was U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and who was previously married to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also championed Wilson’s character. She wrote that Wilson “invited the entire neighborhood to his house for innumerable community events, from his annual Fourth of July dance to move nights broadcast on a professional sized screen next to his house.”
Kennedy also highlighted “one incident” that stood out to her “as truly reflective of John’s goodness.”
She explained that a few years ago, she “was releasing our small sailboat from the mooring” when “a sudden gust arose, and through the tangle of lines and a few novice sailors, we quickly found our bow wedged between the two hundred plus horse-power propellers of John’s motorboat.” Instead of being upset about the damage to his motorboat, Wilson, Kennedy accentuated, “could not have been more understanding.” In fact, he “made the entire episode not one of well-deserved umbrage, but ease and cheer and delight at being good neighbors.”
Wilson’s attorneys also hoped the judge would see leniency given that the son “has been demeaned and dismissed as a fake athlete” despite “dedicating thousands of hours to water polo.” Wilson’s “intelligent, industrious daughters, who received perfect and nearly-perfect scores on their college board exams and placed highly in multiple international academic competitions,” have also been stigmatized.
Prosecutors sought 21 months in prison while Wilson argued for six months. The average sentence for 15 other sentenced parents is about four and a half months. Most pleaded guilty instead of going to trial.
Wilson’s attorneys have promised to appeal.