(BOSTON) — Federal prosecutors in Boston are dropping charges against two parents in the college admissions scandal known as Varsity Blues, according to a court filing Thursday.
The decision followed a ruling from the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the convictions of Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson who were charged with making payments to university accounts so employees would secure their children’s admission as athletic recruits.
Dismissing the charges is a rare blemish for prosecutors who won convictions in about 50 cases tied to the widespread scheme to get kids into college through bribery and cheating.
The two wealthy fathers – Wilson, a former Staples and Gap executive and Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts executive – were found guilty as charged in 2021 in the first trial stemming from the scheme.
While the two men argued they thought their payments to scheme mastermind Rick Singer were legitimate donations, the jury agreed with prosecutors they amounted to bribes to buy their kids’ way into the University of Southern California as athletic recruits even though the kids were nowhere near varsity material.
Abdelaziz paid $300,000, Wilson $220,000, in a case that raised questions about privilege and reaffirmed suspicions about the fairness of the college admissions process.
The trial featured audio recordings of phone calls between Singer, who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, and each of the men that prosecutors said proved the dads knew this was a scheme.
“Sabrina is loving USC!” Abdelaziz greeted Singer on one phone call when Singer informed him, “I’m not going to tell the IRS that your $300,000 was paid to Donna Heinel at USC to get Sabrina into school even though she wasn’t a legitimate basketball player at that level.”
“You’re okay with that right?” Singer asked. “Of course,” Abdelaziz replied.
“I’m going to say your $300,000 payment was made to our foundation to help underserved kids,” Singer said. “I just want to make sure you’re okay with that.”
“I am,” Abdelaziz said.
In reversing, the First Circuit agreed with the defense that admission slots cannot be considered property fraud because the slots are not property and if USC was the victim, as the government alleged, there’s no way the payments could be bribes because “a payment to an alleged victim cannot constitute a bribe as a matter of law.”
“In short, the government has brought a property fraud case that has nothing to do with property; a bribery case that has nothing to do with bribery; and an aiding and abetting case where the alleged principal is the government’s own cooperating witness,” the defense argued before the appellate court.
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