Former U.S.C. Official Pleads Guilty in College Admissions Scandal

Donna Heinel admitted to being part of a sweeping scheme that helped fake athletic recruits get into top universities, in exchange for bribes.

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A former University of Southern California athletic administrator pleaded guilty to being part of a sweeping scheme to get students admitted to prestigious universities as fake athletic recruits, in exchange for bribes.

Donna Heinel, the administrator, appeared by video conference in Boston federal court on Friday to enter the plea, less than two weeks before she was scheduled to go to trial in the case. The charge against her arose from an investigation, known as Operation Varsity Blues, which exposed a corrupt private college consultant, William Singer, working with coaches, test administrators and wealthy parents willing to pay thousands of dollars in bribes to get their children into some of the country’s top universities.

Dr. Heinel, 60, was the central figure of the scheme at U.S.C., as a senior administrator who oversaw the admissions of athletes for nearly a decade before her indictment in 2019. Court documents said Mr. Singer’s clients made payments of more than $1.3 million into U.S.C. accounts controlled by Dr. Heinel over a four-year period, with Mr. Singer later setting up a sham consulting agreement that paid her $20,000 per month.

In exchange, she helped more than two dozen students gain admission as recruited athletes, prosecutors said.

U.S.C. fired her in 2019, after the investigation became public.

Dr. Heinel served as a liaison between the athletic coaches and a subcommittee on admissions that considered athletic recruits. Universities like U.S.C. reserve a certain number of slots for gifted athletes. Mr. Singer, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government, recognized that as a vulnerable part of admissions — a “side door,” he called it — and used a network of insiders to take advantage of it to place his clients.

As part of her plea deal, Dr. Heinel admitted that she presented candidates to the subcommittee who were not qualified to be athletic recruits, misleading the subcommittee into thinking that the candidates had been put forward by coaches. She did so, according to prosecutors, in return for payments from Mr. Singer and his clients.

Dr. Heinel pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud. The government agreed to drop other charges, and recommend a prison sentence of 37 to 46 months. She will also be required to forfeit $160,000, the amount she received in purported consulting fees. Sentencing was scheduled for March 11.

In an unexpected twist during the hearing, the Federal District Court judge, Indira Talwani, grilled both sides for at least an hour on whether the payments that went into a university fund could be construed as bribes. As the discussion unfolded, Dr. Heinel, who had been answering questions in a dull monotone, suddenly perked up and began nodding frequently, as if encouraging the judge’s line of questioning.

The judge’s questioning raised a larger point about college admissions — the degree to which admissions decisions are based not just on merit but to some degree on the ability of parents to donate money.

“I think most people would agree that universities and colleges don’t necessarily accept a person with the highest SAT scores or the highest G.P.A.’s,” Judge Talwani said. “That’s their choice, and nobody would charge an admissions officer of a violation of honest services for admitting a student whose father is donating the building next door.”

By the same token, she said, wasn’t it possible that the admissions department might not object if it found out that a spot was going not to the best athlete, but instead “to get a new floor in the gym?”

Dr. Heinel’s lawyer, Nina Marino, compared her client to the Stanford sailing coach, John Vandemoer, who pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering charge in the same investigation. Mr. Vandemoer has said he handed over Mr. Singer’s checks to Stanford development officers, who planned to use the money for new boats.

Key Figures in “Operation Varsity Blues”

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More than 50 people charged. In 2019, a federal investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues snared dozens of parents, coaches and exam administrators in a vast college admissions scheme that implicated athletic programs at the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford and other schools.

The linchpin. William Singer is an admissions counselor at the center of the scheme. He led an elaborate effort to bribe coaches and test monitors, falsify exam scores and fabricate student biographies. He has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government. He has not been sentenced.

The parents. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among the more than three dozen parents — many of them wealthy and powerful — charged in the case. A private equity financier and a former casino executive, who were found guilty on Oct. 8, 2021, were the first to stand trial. The former C.E.O. of Pimco has received the harshest sentence so far.

The coaches. The case also involved athletic coaches from some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer and Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith. Mr. Vandemoer, who was among the first to take a plea deal, has written a book detailing how he was duped by Mr. Singer.

Kriss Basil, the prosecutor, noted that Mr. Singer was paying Dr. Heinel as a consultant. And even if the money was going into a fund rather than into Dr. Heinel’s pocket, he said, she had access to it, could use it for her own projects and could benefit professionally from it, in a kind of kickback.

“She uses it to advance herself personally,” Mr. Basil said.

Her plea came about a month after two parents, Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, and John Wilson, a private equity financier, were found guilty by a federal jury in Boston; they were the first people to stand trial in the case.

Dr. Heinel was directly implicated in Mr. Abdelaziz’s case. Prosecutors said she helped Mr. Abdelaziz’s daughter get admitted to U.S.C. in 2018 as a basketball recruit, even though she had not made her high school varsity team.

Prosecutors said Mr. Abdelaziz subsequently sent $300,000 to a foundation controlled by Mr. Singer. A few months later, court papers say, Mr. Singer began making payments of $20,000 a month to Dr. Heinel, in exchange for her assistance in easing the way for Mr. Abdelaziz’s daughter and the children of Mr. Singer’s other clients. Mr. Abdelaziz’s daughter never joined the U.S.C. basketball team.

Jeffrey Cohen, a former federal prosecutor, said Friday that the conviction of Mr. Abdelaziz may have pushed Dr. Heinel to take the plea deal.

“Those accused of being involved now recognize that the defenses made by Abdelaziz are not likely to persuade a jury, namely that this was part of the normal admissions process and nothing corrupt,” Mr. Cohen said. “Faced with that realization, the defense will be hard-pressed to formulate a defense, especially for the coaches who are part of the university and not outsiders to the process.”

The investigation has snared more than 50 parents, coaches, exam administrators and others in an admissions scheme that implicated college athletic programs at U.S.C., Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest and Georgetown. Most have pleaded guilty rather than take their chances in court.

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