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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on Wednesday largely cleared two of the fathers who had been convicted in the Varsity Blues admissions cases, which captured the attention of the public and those who work in admissions.
The court’s decision leaves Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson free and clear (except for a tax ruling against Wilson). They were convicted in 2021 of mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery. They were sentenced last year to a year in prison and 15 months in prison, respectively.
The ruling does not question whether the two men paid large sums of money to help get their children into the University of Southern California. The men said they believed what they were doing was legal. Nearly 50 parents and coaches have pleaded guilty in the wide-ranging scandal, but Abdelaziz and Wilson fought the indictment.
The way the scheme worked was that Rick Singer, the mastermind of this system of getting students into college, would work with families to create fake athletic profiles of their children and, in some cases, to help them cheat on the SAT or the ACT. The decision said that Singer’s “culpability is well established.”
A three-judge panel also unanimously agreed, in a 156-page ruling, that Abdelaziz’s and Wilson’s convictions (except the latter’s conviction on tax charges) should be rejected. In the process, the decision said the “side door” to admissions that Singer promised his clients could be legal. The ruling was largely on definitional issues, related to whether the payments constitute bribery.
Writing for the court, Judge Sandra Lynch said the call was “close,” but she supported the defendants.
“The government has not identified any … case involving a purported bribe paid to the victim of an alleged bribery scheme,” Lynch wrote. “Further, the statutes in force while courts developed the … case law defining ‘bribery’ do not support the conclusion that payments to the purportedly betrayed party constitute ‘bribes’ as that term is traditionally understood.”
In addition, “while the government contends that the university insiders stood to benefit professionally from the defendants’ payments, describing this type of indirect benefit from a payment to a university principal—the alleged victim of the scheme—as a ‘private favor’ is at best a stretch,” she added.
Lynch said that it was unfair of the prosecution to imply a “conspiracy” of all the parties involved when Abdelaziz and Wilson didn’t even know all the other parents. While the appeals court judges voided the convictions, they stressed that they did not applaud their conduct. “We do not say the defendants’ conduct is at all desirable,” Lynch wrote.
A major portion of the decision is about admissions slots.
“The asserted ‘property’ that the government argues was obtained here is ‘admissions slots.’ Indeed, the district court instructed the jury that, “for purposes of the mail and wire fraud statutes, admission[s] slots are the property of the
universities,’” Lynch wrote.
“The defendants contend, however, that admissions slots can never qualify as property for purposes of the mail and wire fraud statutes, and thus that their convictions under these statutes must be reversed for that reason alone,” she went on.
Lynch wrote, “We reject the government’s argument that admissions slots at any university always qualify as property for purposes of the mail and wire fraud statutes. The government’s categorical argument fails, for example, to recognize even the well-known variations in types of admissions slots offered at the university level; for instance, early admission, rolling admission, conditional admission, waiting-list admission, and deferred admission. Nor does the government’s categorical approach account for the fact that admissions occur at all levels of education, from nursery school through postgraduate studies, and involve millions of students and parents.”
At the same time, Lynch wrote that with “increased detail,” it might be possible for a district court judge to have sound reason to declare that some admissions slots are property.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor said, “Our office is reviewing the opinion issued by the First Circuit Court of Appeals and assessing next steps.”
Joshua Sharp, a lawyer for Abdelaziz, told the Los Angeles Times that his client was grateful the appeals court “recognized that his trial was profoundly flawed” and reversed his convictions.
“My client wasn’t in a conspiracy with people who he never knew, and his trial was fundamentally unfair because it relied on evidence of other people’s misconduct,” Sharp said. “He’s maintained his innocence since Day One.”