First trial of college admissions scandal begins

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First trial of college admissions scandal begins

Opening statements are slated to begin Monday in the first trial of the college admissions cheating scandal that ensnared celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and was portrayed in the “Operation Varsity Blues” Netflix documentary.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers are set to kick off the trial of Gamal Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts executive, and John Wilson, a private-equity investor.

The two are accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to former college counselor and the scheme’s mastermind William “Rick” Singer to bribe staff and get their kids into the University of Southern California by falsely presenting them as athletic recruits.

Dozens of high-profile parents, athletic coaches and others have been arrested in connection with the case, but Abdelaziz and Wilson’s case is the first to go to trial, with many others having pleaded guilty.

Singer, who has admitted to working with parents and others to rig test scores and bribe coaches at schools like USC and Yale, is awaiting sentencing for his role in the scam, which laid bare the stunning level of corruption in the US higher education system.

Prosecutors have alleged that Abdelaziz paid $300,000 to Singer in 2017 to get his daughter, who didn’t qualify for her high school varsity basketball team, into USC as a basketball recruit.

Former Wynn Resorts executive Gamal Abdelaziz.
Former Wynn Resorts executive Gamal Abdelaziz paid Rick Singer in 2017 to get his daughter into USC as a basketball recruit.
Brian Snyder/REUTERS

Wilson similarly worked with Singer beginning in 2013 to get his son into USC as a water polo recruit and then later in 2018 to get his twin daughters into Harvard and Stanford as sailing recruits, prosecutors have alleged.

He allegedly paid more than $1 million for the arrangements.

In opening statements at the jury trial, defense attorneys will likely argue that Wilson and Abdelaziz believed their payments were legitimate donations and that USC’s acceptance of their kids in turn was legal and routine.

Prosecutors, though, have said it’s a clear-cut case of fraud and lying, accusing the defense of misleadingly focusing on USC’s admissions standards and not the behavior of the students’ parents.

Bruce Isackson.
Prosecution is expected to call Bruce Isackson, a real-estate developer from Northern California and a parent in the scam who’s been cooperating with prosecutors.
Michael Dwyer/AP

USC, for its part, has said it wasn’t aware of Singer’s scam until 2018 when it cooperated with the investigation.

US District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, who’s presiding over the case in Massachusetts, emphasized at a recent hearing that “USC is not on trial.”

Prosecutors have said they don’t intend to call Singer as a witness, though they have left open the possibility. He’s already pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for tipping off some of his clients after he first agreed to cooperate with investigators.

In notes on his phone — which are now evidence in the case — Singer also claimed that federal agents were pressuring him to lie in recorded calls with parents, painting the payments they were making as bribes instead of donations. 

University of Southern California.
The University of Southern California has said it wasn’t aware of Rick Singer’s scam until 2018 when it cooperated with the investigation.
Reed Saxon/AP

The defense, if given the opportunity, may seize on those previous admissions.

Prosecution is expected to call Bruce Isackson, a real-estate developer from Northern California and a parent in the scam who’s been cooperating with prosecutors, as its first witness on Monday, Assistant US Attorney Stephen Frank said Friday in a hearing.

Isackson and his wife, Davina, pleaded guilty in 2019 to charges that they worked with Singer to get their daughters into the University of California, Los Angeles and USC as athletic recruits.

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