Two Parents Are the First to Face Trial in College Admissions Scandal

Gamal Abdelaziz, a former hotel and casino executive, is accused of paying $300,000 to get his daughter admitted to the University of Southern California as a basketball player based on false qualifications.

John Wilson, a private equity executive, is accused of paying $220,000 to get his son admitted to U.S.C. as a water polo player, then conspiring to pay another $1.5 million to secure admission for his daughters to Harvard and Stanford.

Opening statements begin on Monday for the first parents to face trial in a sweeping college admissions case that exposed the role that money, athletics and family privilege play in the competition for coveted seats at brand-name schools.

Over the coming weeks, the fairness of the admissions process may also be on trial.

The mastermind of this college admissions scheme, a college consultant named William Singer, and known as Rick, has already pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges and cooperated with the government. He specialized in getting his clients’ children into schools through what he called the “side door” — a process that involved making a donation to an athletic department (or simply a payment to a coach) in exchange for the student being designated as a recruited athlete, often in a sport that he or she didn’t play at all.

Part of the trial will hinge on the question of whether Mr. Abdelaziz and Mr. Wilson believed that U.S.C. embraced the “side door” or whether they knowingly engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the university by lying about their children’s athletic qualifications and making quid pro quo payments to athletic officials.

Lawyers for the defendants said in a recent hearing that they planned to spotlight U.S.C.’s admissions practices and its fund-raising efforts, particularly as they were intertwined in the athletics department. The lawyers said they would introduce evidence showing that the athletic department solicited donations for years from applicants’ parents in exchange for preferential treatment in admissions — and that their clients believed they were participating in an accepted, if unsavory, practice.

At the hearing, one of Mr. Wilson’s lawyers, Michael Kendall, told the judge, Nathaniel M. Gorton, that the defense would present evidence that “rebuts any thought that this is a fraud on U.S.C.”

But prosecutors say that U.S.C.’s admission practices are not on trial, and in court documents, they lay out key aspects of their case.

According to the documents, Mr. Singer told investigators that he had advised Mr. Abdelaziz that his daughter was unlikely to get into U.S.C. based on her academic record. She would have a better chance, Mr. Singer said he told Mr. Abdelaziz, as a recruited athlete.

Mr. Singer told investigators that although the daughter played basketball in high school, she was not good enough to be recruited. So, according to the documents, Mr. Abdelaziz helped Mr. Singer put together a basketball profile to submit to U.S.C. that included falsified honors.

With the help of Donna Heinel, U.S.C.’s former senior associate athletic director, Mr. Abdelaziz’s daughter was admitted in 2018 as a basketball recruit, the documents say. Mr. Abdelaziz subsequently sent $300,000 to a foundation controlled by Mr. Singer, according to the documents.

A few months later, the documents say, Mr. Singer began making payments of $20,000 a month to Dr. Heinel, in exchange for her assistance in recruiting 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. Dr. Heinel has pleaded not guilty to fraud and other charges and is scheduled to go to trial in November along with three other former athletic officials.

The prosecutors’ case against Mr. Wilson also involves athletics.

Mr. Wilson’s son played water polo, but not competitively enough, according to prosecutors. Mr. Singer wrote a false athletic profile, with Mr. Wilson’s knowledge. After the son was admitted, prosecutors say, Mr. Wilson paid Mr. Singer $220,000, of which Mr. Singer sent $100,000 to the U.S.C. water polo team, according to court documents. The son withdrew from the team after one semester.

Later, prosecutors say, Mr. Wilson agreed to pay $1.5 million to secure spots at Stanford and Harvard for his twin daughters. According to court documents, Mr. Singer, who by this time was cooperating with law enforcement agents, told Mr. Wilson the spot at Stanford would be through the sailing team, but the daughter didn’t have to actually sail; the spot at Harvard would be through a “senior women’s administrator” who would choose a sport for his daughter.

U.S.C. said in a statement that “the trial is about whether these two remaining defendants committed a crime.” And it has fought efforts by the defendants to get their hands on documents about its tracking of so-called V.I.P. applicants. Several current and former U.S.C. athletics employees, including its former athletic director, Pat Haden, have filed motions seeking to quash subpoenas for them to appear as witnesses. Judge Gorton has not yet ruled on them.

Judge Gorton said in a recent hearing that he would limit the amount of evidence he would allow the defendants to introduce about U.S.C.’s general admissions practices, saying, “U.S.C. is not on trial here.”

A big unknown is whether the prosecution will call Mr. Singer as a witness. Normally, the prosecution would want such a key player to describe the conspiracy to the jury. But Mr. Singer is potentially a problematic witness. He has already pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for tipping off some of his favored clients after he first agreed to cooperate with federal agents. He took contemporaneous notes saying that federal agents were pressuring him to lie in recorded calls with parents, describing the payments they were making as bribes rather than donations. The United States Attorney’s office and Mr. Singer’s attorney declined to comment.

The trial was originally scheduled to take place last fall but was delayed because of the pandemic. Three more parents are scheduled to go to trial in January.

Thirty-three parents, and a number of coaches and other individuals, have already pleaded guilty to involvement in the scheme, which also involved cheating on admissions exams. The actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were both sentenced to prison for their roles — 14 days for Ms. Huffman, who admitted to conspiring to fraudulently inflate her daughter’s SAT score, and two months for Ms. Loughlin, who admitted to paying to get her two daughters into U.S.C. as rowers. The longest prison sentence any parent in the case has received so far is nine months.

In the end, this trial will unfold just as this year’s high school seniors are applying to college. Michael Bastedo, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, said that, since the charges were first brought in 2019, many colleges have tried to clean up their practices around athletic recruitment, creating greater accountability and ensuring that athletic officials don’t have unchecked power over admissions.

But he said that other advantages enjoyed by wealthy students — including preferences for donors and children of alumni — are still in place, and the public could be forgiven for seeing the admissions system as still fundamentally unfair.

Mr. Bastedo added that he doesn’t think people will feel like the system is changing — “even if there’s some justice in these cases,” he said.

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