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Robert Zangrillo, center

Craig Walker, The Boston Globe, for Getty Images

The Varsity Blues admissions scandal took a new turn Tuesday, as the defense team for one indicted parent unveiled conversations between University of Southern California officials in which they appear to disregard applicants' academic and athletic achievements for the dollar amount of donations their families were offering the university.

Documents containing email exchanges and spreadsheets released Sept. 3 by the attorney for Robert Zangrillo, one of the 33 parents indicted in the nationwide college admissions scandal that broke in March, revealed alleged admissions preferences for "special interest" or "VIP" applicants at USC. Lists contained a "notes" category, where officials marked applicants as "potential donor," included the amounts previously donated and identified any family or personal connections with USC, the documents show.

Messages between officials in USC's athletics, fundraising and admissions departments showed favorable treatment for students whose families had "past donations, pledges of future donations, or expectation of future donations based on the university's belief in a parent's resources … including recommendations on the prospective student's behalf by persons of power, wealth, or position in the USC community, past or present," the filing states.

The now-public documents attempt to divert criminal charges against Zangrillo for bribery -- he made a "relatively ordinary gift" of $50,000 following his daughter's admission to USC, according to the filing. "It was a donation indistinguishable from the vast numbers of other donations by parents of students made to USC and apparently to other universities and colleges nationwide," the filing states.

It was not clear in the filing whether other institutions were following similar admissions procedures. Martin G. Weinberg, Zangrillo's defense attorney, wrote in an email that his other client indicted in the admissions scandal was not listed in the filing because their child was admitted to another institution, not USC.

"The documents will further show that USC was not a 'victim' of any fraud, that it lost no money or property, and that the employee or employees who tagged Mr. Zangrillo's daughter as a 'VIP' or with a 'special interest' code, thereby helping to facilitate her admission, acted within the scope of their duties," the filing argued.

USC said in a statement that the filing is "part of a legal and public relations strategy to divert attention from the criminal fraud" that Zangrillo was indicted for in March.

"The admissions process is directed by the Office of Admission, which regularly receives information from various departments throughout the university," USC wrote in a statement. "The emails included with Mr. Zangrillo's filing demonstrate that no Athletic Department official has the authority to compel admissions decisions."

But in one email exchange, current athletic director Ron Orr, and Donna Heinel, a former athletic director who was indicted for one count of racketeering conspiracy, discussed with an official from USC's Office of University Advancement in New York City how the family of a prospective water polo walk-on could give a "1-5M potential" donation to the Marshall School of Business, according to the filing. (Note: This paragraph has been changed from a previous version to correct a reference to Scott Jacobson, a USC athletics official who was copied on the email exchange but did not participate in it.)

"We would be happy to also explore the possibility of carving out a piece of that initial gift to support athletics as well," wrote Elizabeth Frank, senior director of the New York City regional office, in a February 2014 email. "There is plenty of room in this family for everyone to 'win' here, in my opinion."

A lawyer for Heinel said, "The internal USC documentation and email communication submitted in support of Zangrillo's brief makes clear that there was an aspect of USC admission that was directly linked to donations. Donna Heinel did not create this system. Throughout her distinguished 16-year career at USC, Dr. Heinel performed her job as she was instructed to do so by [former USC athletic director] Pat Haden, her predecessors in the position and others, and always in accordance with the expectations of both the athletic department and the USC administration. Dr. Heinel did nothing wrong."

None of the other USC officials named in this article returned phone calls requesting comment.

Communication between Heinel and Dean of Admission Tim Brunold in March 2018 shows the former athletic director asking Brunold to move an applicant to admission for the upcoming spring semester, despite inadequate academics, because "the family has helped build the foundation for many USC projects and initiatives" and "has been ingrained within the university and athletics programs for over 40 years."

"[Redacted] test scores are well below the standard but her GPA represents her perseverance and determination to be successful," Heinel wrote about the applicant.

"Yes," Brunold replied the next day. "We will admit [redacted] to the spring."

USC does allow departments outside of admissions, such as athletics, to label applicants with a special interest tag, said a statement from the university. USC had previously disclosed this practice, the statement said, which it asserted is common among "most private universities."

It's hard to pinpoint how institutions as a whole consider philanthropy in admissions, because it depends on each college or university's process, said Brian Flahaven, senior director for advocacy for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an organization that publishes guidelines for ethical giving in higher education for about 1,950 member colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. CASE doesn't currently have research on its members that identifies links between institutional advancement and admissions, Flahaven said.

"It can be anything that's an actual factor in the admissions process, or a consideration among many considerations; it could be an 'extra look' from one school, different from a scoring factor," Flahaven said. "Whether it's a common practice, I don't think we know. It always depends on what you consider a factor or preference. Is it simply just an 'extra look,' or is it part of a larger admissions process?"

In its statement of ethics, CASE maintains that its members in institutional advancement positions should not "solicit or accept favors for their institutions where a higher public interest would be violated" and should "avoid actual or apparent conflicts of interest." CASE has had conversations with member institutions about their standards following the college admissions scandal, which Flahaven said has cast a shadow on the public good that philanthropic donations to institutions are meant to provide.

"There's been a general sense that philanthropy has caused universities to be seen as transactional, not as a gift," Flahaven said. "Some of the suggestions that have played out are that it's all about donors giving money to institutions in order to gain an advantage for their kids. That's not what philanthropy is about."

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