John Wilson, who received the longest prison sentence (15 months) of any Operation Varsity Blues parent, stands to gain from a judge granting a new trial for former USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic last Thursday.
In April, a jury convicted Vavic of honest services wire fraud and other crimes partly based on Wilson’s donations to USC. Those donations were made in conjunction with Wilson’s son gaining admissions into the school and a spot on the Trojans water polo team. USC was the ostensible victim of those payments in that, even though it received money, the university was deprived of the “honest services” of Vavic as an employee.
Judge Indira Talwani wasn’t convinced.
“However distasteful,” the judge wrote in a 60-page opinion obtained by Sportico, “there is nothing inherently illegal about a private institution accepting money in exchange for a student’s admission.” She added that while Vavic might have gained prestige or more favorable reviews for what seemed like skilled fundraising, “bringing in the money cannot, without more, be the basis for an honest services fraud conviction,” the judge wrote.
Vavic’s new trial is a positive development for Wilson, on whose behalf infamous admissions consultant Rick Singer—who worked with Vavic on directing clients’ children to USC as so-called “fake athletes”—remitted a $100,000 cashier’s check to USC men’s water polo in 2014. The Wilson family, the check noted, were the givers. USC’s associate athletic director later wrote a note to Wilson and his wife, thanking them for the gift. Vavic took steps to make sure the admissions office accepted Wilson’s son, including by exaggerating the son’s water polo talents. The son had played on a nationally ranked high school water polo team but was not a formal USC recruit.
The son matriculated to USC and joined the water polo team. There was evidence he practiced for the Trojans but didn’t play; he left the team during his freshman year on account of suffering a concussion.
Prosecutors argued that Vavic had deprived his employer of his honest services but the problem with this logic, Talwani emphasized, is that “the money benefited USC, and USC was content to accept the money at the time it was given, as evidenced by the thank-you notes written to the Wilsons and other families.”
She further found the portrayal of USC as a victim problematic, since “there was no suggestion that USC returned the money once the scheme was revealed.” While Talwani acknowledged USC might have suffered “reputational harm” from the scandal, that “does not change the fact that the money itself was paid to the institution.”
Unlike most Operation Varsity Blues parents, who struck plea deals with the government, Wilson insisted on his innocence and took his chances with a jury. While accused of paying more than $1.2 million to secure the admissions of his son and twin daughters into USC, Stanford and Harvard, Wilson didn’t engage in the types of parental misconduct commonly associated with the scandal. He didn’t bribe college employees, pay to have his children’s test scores altered (his children were depicted as standout students), stage photos of his kids playing sports, or fake learning disabilities. But the jury still found that Wilson, who had made donations to a sham foundation associated with Singer, broke the law.
Wilson, a private equity investor and former Staples executive who earned an MBA from Harvard, is not incarcerated as he pursues an appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. He maintains he could not plausibly have been part of a criminal conspiracy since he didn’t collaborate with, or even know about, the other parents. Those parents, Wilson further insists, were his competitors—not conspirators—in that their children were competing for the same admissions slots as his kids.
“Judge Talwani’s ruling correctly rejects the prosecution’s claim that John Wilson’s donations were bribes,” Wilson’s attorney, former U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, said in a statement shared with Sportico. “Indeed, the prosecution cannot identify a single example in all of American legal history where the victim and beneficiary of a ‘bribe’ were one and the same. We look forward to presenting this and other issues to the Court of Appeals on November 7.”
Whether parents paying to have their kids accepted into a college ought to count as a crime remains a topic of debate in legal circles. In June a jury found Amin Khoury—accused of paying then-Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst to help a daughter gain admission into Georgetown as a tennis recruit—not guilty. His attorneys stressed that wealthy parents paying money to enhance their kids’ chances for admissions into elite schools is not only common, but university officials have also acknowledged it helps those applicants’ chances.