1st trial in college admissions bribe scheme to head to jury

Two wealthy parents who are the first to stand trial in the college admissions bribery scandal used lies and money to steal coveted spots at prestigious schools their kids couldn’t secure on their own, a prosecutor said Wednesday before jurors decide if the men are guilty.

Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson wanted a guarantee their kids would get into the school of their choice and agreed to use fraud and bribery to have them designated as athletic recruits to make that a reality, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank told jurors in his closing argument.

“These parents were not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer and to get to ‘yes,’ they crossed a line,” Frank said. “And in crossing that line, they broke the law.”

The case now will head to jurors more than two years after FBI agents arrested dozens of well-known parents, athletic coaches and others across the country in the scheme involving rigged test scores and bogus athletic credentials. Nearly four dozen people have already pleaded guilty in the case.

Abdelaziz and Wilson face charges including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud. Jurors are expected to begin deliberating on Thursday after the judge gives his instructions.

Lawyers for the pair have painted their clients as victims of a con man: the admissions consultant at the center of the scheme — Rick Singer — who never took the stand. The parents insist they knew nothing about bribes and false or embellished athletic credentials and that Singer led them to believe they were making legal donations to give their children a boost in the admissions process.

“John is not part of Singer’s con. There is no evidence, not even a hint, that John figured out Singer’s scam. The truth is simple: John is Singer’s victim, not once but twice," Wilson’s attorney, Michael Kendall, told jurors.

Abdelaziz, a former casino executive from Las Vegas, is charged with paying $300,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a basketball recruit. Wilson, a former Staples executive who now heads a Massachusetts private equity firm, is accused of paying $220,000 to have his son designated as a USC water polo recruit and an additional $1 million to buy his twin daughters’ ways into Harvard and Stanford.

Prosecutors played jurors a slew of secretly recorded phone calls between Singer and the parents with the goal of proving that the parents not only knew their payments were bribes but were eager participants in the fraud. Singer, who began cooperating with investigators in 2018 in the hopes of getting a lighter punishment, has pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced.

In one call with Singer, Wilson asked which sports “would be best” for his twin daughters. Singer responded that it “doesn’t matter” and that he would “make them a sailor or something” because Wilson lives on Cape Cod.

Wilson laughed and asked Singer: “Is there a two for one special? If you got twins?”

Singer told Abdelaziz in another call that his foundation was being audited by the IRS — a ruse authorities instructed Singer to use in the hopes of getting the parents to admit to the scheme on tape.

Singer told Abdelaziz that he wouldn’t tell the IRS that the money was used to get his daughter into school “even though she wasn’t a legitimate basketball player at that level" and asked Abdelaziz if he was OK with that.

“Of course," Abdelaziz responded.

Among those who testified during the more than three-week trial was a high school classmate of Abdelaziz’s daughter, who told jurors the girl didn’t even make the cut for the varsity team. Even though she played for only two years on the junior varsity team, her college essay said: “the basketball court is like my art studio,” according to prosecutors.

A lawyer for Abdelaziz accused prosecutors of cherry picking from the phone calls to make it look like his client did something wrong and not calling key witnesses — like Singer — that he said would prove they have a weak case. Attorney Brian Kelly said Abdelaziz never saw the girl’s phony athletic profile and never agreed to bribe anyone.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors," Kelly said of the government’s case. “They don’t have the evidence to prove him guilty,” he added.

Wilson’s lawyer told jurors that they may think Wilson was “naïve” or “even foolish” to believe Singer when the admissions consultant told him that the the schools endorsed his so-called “side-door" business. But that doesn’t mean he committed any crimes, Kendall said.

“If John Wilson believed the stories that Mr. Singer told him — and he clearly did — that proves he acted in good faith and you must find him not guilty," he said.