First trial in ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ college admission scandal to begin

Education

BOSTON (Reuters) — Two high-powered business executives were set on Monday to become the first people to face trial in the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, charged with paying bribes to get their children admitted to an elite U.S. university.

Former casino executive Gamal Aziz, 64, and private equity firm founder John Wilson, 62, are accused of conspiring with California college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, who previously pleaded guilty in the scheme.

Prosecutors allege the two fathers sought to fraudulently secure spots for their children at the University of Southern California as fake athletic recruits with hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments.

Both men deny wrongdoing, saying they believed the money was for donations to the universities, not bribes.

A federal jury in Boston on Monday will hear opening statements in the trial, expected to last up to four weeks. The judge set two collective trials for parents who have pleaded not guilty. Aziz and Wilson are the first, and other defendants face trial in January.

Wilson and Aziz were indicted 2-1/2 years ago along with dozens of business executives and celebrities. The scandal exposed the lengths wealthy parents would go to in order to attain spots for their children at top schools and inequalities in higher education.

“It says a lot, not all of it good, about how people in this country deal with college admissions,” said Andrew Lelling, the former top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts who first brought the case.

Fifty-seven people have been charged in the probe since 2019, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The two were among 46 people, including 32 wealthy parents, who have since pleaded guilty.

Aziz is the former president of Wynn Resorts Ltd’s Macau subsidiary, and Wilson is a former Gap Inc and Staples Inc executive who founded Hyannis Port Capital.

Prosecutors say Singer, through his college counseling business, The Key, offered not just legitimate services to parents worried about their children’s college prospects but also the use of an illicit “side door” to secure them admission.

Singer has not been sentenced yet after he pleaded guilty in 2019 to facilitating cheating on college entrance exams and using bribery to secure the admission of students to colleges as fake athletic recruits.

While Singer became a star government cooperating witness, prosecutors on Friday said they do not expect to call him to testify.

Prosecutors say Aziz agreed in 2018 to pay $300,000 to secure his daughter’s admission to USC as a basketball recruit by bribing an official.

Prosecutors allege Wilson in 2014 paid $220,000 to have his son falsely designated a USC water polo recruit and later sought to pay another $1.5 million to fraudulently secure spots for his two daughters at Stanford and Harvard universities.

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