As lawyers give their closing arguments in the first trial of the college admissions scandal on Wednesday, one question may hang over the Boston courtroom: Will the jury, in a city where town-and-gown suspicion can be strong, see the trial as a tale of a flawed, possibly corrupt college admissions system, or the arrogance and immorality of wealthy men?
From the opening day of the federal trial three weeks ago, the prosecution tried to steer the jury away from the college admissions system. Rather, prosecutors said the focus should be on the actions of the two men on trial, John Wilson, a private-equity financier and former Gap and Staples executive, and Gamal Abdelaziz, a former Wynn Resorts executive.
Prosecutors say the two men paid bribes to a college counselor to get their children into the University of Southern California as bogus athletic recruits, while the defendants say they thought they were making legitimate donations. They are the first to stand trial in the investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues, with many other similarly accused parents choosing to plead guilty.
“This case is not about wealthy people donating money to universities in the hope that their children get preferential treatment in the admissions process,” Leslie Wright, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in her opening statement in the imposing federal court near the Boston seaport.
“The defendants are not charged with crimes for having donated money to U.S.C. If that was all they had done, we would not be here today.”
The trial is taking place in the same courthouse where, three years ago, Harvard was accused of systematically discriminating against Asian American applicants in admissions.
During that trial, a packed house listened raptly to testimony about how some applicants with connections to donors might be put on the “dean’s interest list”; others might be designated as athletic recruits, which gave them an enhanced chance of getting in. The plaintiffs read out loud a 2013 email from the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School in which he thanked the dean of admissions for “the folks you were able to admit” and exulted that someone “has already committed to a building.”
A federal judge and an appeals court found that Harvard did not discriminate, and the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.
In the current case, prosecutors must overcome the ingrained suspicion that college admissions are tainted, said Jeffrey M. Cohen, a former federal prosecutor and associate professor at Boston College Law School. “The goal of the defense is to suggest that although distasteful, the defendants were playing along with the rules as they understood them to be,” Mr. Cohen said.
On the other hand, Mr. Cohen said, the jury may see that a line has been crossed in an unsavory system. “We’ve generally accepted that if you donate a building to a university you get some preference to get in,” he said. “We don’t agree that if you lie and cheat to get in, you should get in.”
The admitted mastermind behind the admissions scheme, William Singer, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government, though he has not yet been sentenced. He ran a college counseling business out of California called the Key that included a mix of legitimate services, like tutoring, and fraudulent ones, like helping students cheat on college admissions tests and fabricating athletic credentials, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Singer, who is known as Rick, characterized what he was doing as getting students admitted through a “side door,” and boasted that he could get the children of wealthy parents designated as varsity-level athletes when they were nothing of the kind.
The government says that he did it by bribing coaches and others who were working with him, at schools including U.S.C., Stanford, Yale and Georgetown, and that it strains credulity to think sophisticated businessmen like Mr. Wilson and Mr. Abdelaziz did not realize that. Mr. Wilson wrote off his payments as business expenses and charitable contributions, prosecutors say.
Mr. Abdelaziz is accused of paying Mr. Singer $300,000 to get his daughter, Sabrina, into U.S.C. as a top-ranked basketball recruit even though she did not make the varsity team in high school. Mr. Wilson is accused of paying Mr. Singer $220,000 to have his son designated as a water polo recruit.
Some of the money actually did go to the university’s athletic programs, like $100,000 from the Wilson family, according to prosecutors. Other payments went into the pockets of those involved, prosecutors say.
Five years later, Mr. Wilson agreed to pay $1.5 million in what Mr. Singer called “donations,” according to the prosecutor’s opening statement, to help his twin daughters get into Stanford and Harvard. Mr. Singer offered to present them as sailors because their father had a home in Hyannis Port, Mass., though Mr. Wilson demurred that the one who wanted to go to Stanford hated sailing. At that point, Mr. Singer was cooperating with the government, which had concocted the ruse to see if Mr. Wilson would go along, according to the prosecution.
During the trial, the defense lawyers have tried to establish the “mind-set” of the two defendants, who did not know each other, by saying they did not realize that Mr. Singer, who prosecutors admit kept up a facade of legitimacy, was lying to them.
“It’s not illegal to do fund-raising, not illegal to give money to a school in the hopes that your kid will get in,” Brian Kelly, Mr. Abdelaziz’s lawyer, said. “So that’s his mind-set.”
Mr. Cohen, the law professor, said the details of the testimony might make a difference there.
Bruce Isackson, one of the parents who has pleaded guilty, choked up on the stand while testifying for the prosecution in the hope of getting a lighter sentence. He said he asked to have his name removed from a place of honor at his children’s school because he was so embarrassed by his role in the Varsity Blues scandal.
“Your situation was unique to you, correct?” asked Mr. Kelly, who was part of the team that prosecuted the mobster James (Whitey) Bulger. “You don’t know what these other parents’ mind-sets were.”
“I could not know that,” Mr. Isackson replied.
Yet later in his testimony, Mr. Isackson, a real estate developer in the San Francisco area, was adamant that the scheme described by the government was as clear as day. “You’d have to be a fool” not to know what was going on, he testified.
But the details can be complicated.
For one thing, Mr. Wilson’s son, Johnny, really was a competitive water polo athlete in high school; he was a fast swimmer and “a quiet grinder” who had the fortitude to “just put your head down and swim,” his high school coach, Jack Bowen, testified for the defense. But Mr. Bowen also testified that some elements, like a few awards, of the athletic profile that Mr. Singer submitted to U.S.C. on the student’s behalf were false.
And in the end, Mr. Bowen testified that he was “a little surprised, I wouldn’t say shocked,” that Johnny Wilson had been admitted.
Kitty Bennett and Jack Begg contributed research.