A private equity investor convicted of charges stemming from paying more than $1.2 million to ensure his son and twin daughters were admitted into USC, Stanford and Harvard as fake athletes has appealed. And his case has attracted a surprising and eclectic range of support, including former U.S. attorneys, criminal law professors and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). They collectively insist that John Wilson, who received the longest sentence (15 months) of any Operation Varsity Blues parent, neither experienced a fair trial nor were his misdeeds as egregious as those committed by other parents.
Wilson’s appeal and accompanying amicus briefs were recently filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.
One of the recurring questions about Varsity Blues is why a parent paying—bribing—a university employee to procure admissions constitutes a crime. There’s little debate that the practice is unethical. With the rich and privileged as beneficiaries, many find it unsavory, too. But if an affluent parent paid the university’s foundation, the payment would constitute a tax deductible “donation,” not an illicit “bribe.” University leaders would also celebrate the donation and publicly extol the parent. At many schools, the donation would reflect favorably in admissions decisions.
Admissions consultant Rick Singer convinced the parents that his scheme, the so-called “side door,” was a superior option. The ruse essentially guaranteed acceptance and left little to chance. It also “only” cost six figures instead of the millions of “donated” dollars typically needed to move the needle in admissions. Prosecutors argued that paying the employee deprived the university of the employee’s honest services. When coupled with using a banking institution to transact, the bribe became a crime: honest services wire fraud.
Unlike Lori Loughlin and other celebrity parents who negotiated plea deals for light sentences, the Harvard-educated Wilson took his chances with a jury. The move backfired when he was convicted last fall.
Wilson’s advocates point out that he paid Singer’s business and sham foundation, not university employees. He’s also not accused of misdeeds popularly associated with the scandal. Wilson didn’t stage fake athletic photos of his children. He didn’t bribe proctors to alter SAT scores. He didn’t pay to have his kids diagnosed with fake learning disabilities so they could get more time to take tests.
Wilson contends the government erred by charging him as part of a conspiracy with other parents. That approach enabled prosecutors to tell jurors about the other parents’ shenanigans as if they and Wilson collaborated.
Wilson maintains this portrayal is both factually untrue—he didn’t scheme with other parents, only with Singer—and implausible since Singer led the parents to believe their children were competing for the same admission slots. The parents, in other words, possessed the same objective, but it wasn’t a shared objective. “The Yankees and Red Sox,” Wilson’s attorneys analogized, “do not have a common goal, even though they both have the same goal: to win the World Series.” In their amicus brief, the former U.S. attorneys contend that jurors hearing about the other parents “poisoned Wilson’s trial.”
Wilson also insists his actions didn’t constitute criminal fraud. Under the government’s theory, Wilson deceitfully boosting his children’s chances for admissions stripped USC, Stanford and Harvard of “property.” Wilson’s advocates acknowledge he “deprived” those schools “of the prerogative to choose their students without interference,” but they assert the loss of control over which students comprise incoming classes is not a loss of “property” under the law. They note that courts have consistently “concluded that admitted students do not have a property interest in enrolling in and attending academic programs.”
The NACDL warns the government’s theory of “property fraud” has “no limiting principle” and “makes felons” of people who engage in mild forms of treachery. “Consider a student who accepts a binding ‘early decision’ offer from one school,” the association asks as an illustration, “but backs out after being admitted to his dream school. He hurt the school’s ‘yield’ (ratio of enrollments to acceptances) and thus its rankings.”
Wilson hasn’t reported to prison yet. That date remains a point of contention. Wilson’s attorneys have petitioned Judge Nathaniel Gorton to allow him to remain out on bail pending the appeal. They argue if Wilson is required to report to prison “now,” he’ll likely complete his sentence before the First Circuit rules, probably in 2023 or 2024. “That,” they warn, “would render his appellate rights illusory.” But U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins insists that Wilson has overstated favorable precedent, which she also contends is from outside the First Circuit and thus non-binding.