Attorney, vineyard owner to plead guilty in admissions scam

'I'm not worried about the moral issue here'

By Eric Levenson and Mark Morales, CNN
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(CNN) - A high-powered attorney who said he had no moral issue with the college admissions scam and a Napa Valley vineyard owner who insisted he was not a "moron" both pleaded guilty to conspiracy fraud in federal court Tuesday.

Gordon Caplan, once an acclaimed partner at international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, pleaded guilty to paying $75,000 as part of a scheme to cheat on his daughter's ACT.

Agustin Huneeus Jr., a vineyard owner, also pleaded guilty to paying $50,000 to cheat on his daughter's SAT exam and agreeing to pay a total of $250,000 in bribes to get his daughter into University of Southern California as a purported water polo recruit, prosecutors said.

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors will recommend Caplan receive on the low end of 8-14 months in prison and that Huneeus receive 15 months in prison. Their sentencing hearings are scheduled for October.

Both Caplan and Huneeus were captured on recorded phone calls speaking bluntly and openly about the details of the scam, according to a criminal complaint.

"It's just, to be honest, I'm not worried about the moral issue here. I'm worried about the, if (my daughter is) caught doing that, you know, she's finished," Caplan said in one recorded phone call, according to the complaint.

The guilty pleas come amid a busy week in the college admissions scam in which 33 wealthy parents, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, have been accused of using their means to game the competitive admissions system. (Huffman pleaded guilty last week to paying $15,000 to a fake charity that facilitated cheating when her daughter took the SAT.)

Another six parents are expected to plead guilty in court later this week to the same charges of conspiracy fraud. Gregory Abbott, Marcia Abbott and Peter Jan Sartorio are expected to plead guilty Wednesday, and Jane Buckingham, Robert Flaxman and Marjorie Klapper are set to plead guilty Friday, according to the Justice Department.

'Dealmaker of the Year' to plead guilty

Caplan, 52, is accused of paying a fake charity run by scam mastermind Rick Singer to facilitate cheating on his daughter's ACT exam, the criminal complaint states. As part of the scheme, a paid proctor corrected answers after Caplan's daughter had completed the test.

The complaint includes several conversations between Caplan and Singer in which Singer describes how the scheme works and also encourages Caplan's daughter "to be stupid" and apply to a psychologist for extra time on the test.

In court, prosecutors read the accusations against Caplan aloud.

"I don't dispute any of those facts, but I want to emphasize my daughter had absolutely nothing to do with this," Caplan said.

Caplan said he planned to plead guilty in early April and released a statement apologizing for his actions. In exchange for pleading guilty, prosecutors agreed to recommend he receive a prison sentence at the lower end of the federal guidelines.

"I take full and sole responsibility for my conduct and I am deeply ashamed of my behavior and my actions," Caplan said. "I apologize not only to my family, friends, colleagues and the legal bar, but also to students everywhere who have been accepted to college through their own hard work."

He said his daughter, who benefited from the scam, is a high school junior and so has not applied to or been accepted by any schools.

"She had no knowledge whatsoever about my actions, has been devastated to learn what I did and has been hurt the most by it," he said.

Before his arrest, Caplan was a partner and co-chairman of the Willkie Farr & Gallagher law firm. In 2018, The American Lawyer magazine named him one of its "Dealmakers of the Year" for guiding a series of transactions between Hudson's Bay Co., Rhône Capital and the workspace startup WeWork.

Caplan left the law firm as a result of his involvement in the scam, the firm said in April.

'What do you think, I'm a moron?'

Huneeus participated in both the exam cheating and college recruitment schemes, the complaint said.

As part of the recruitment scheme, Singer sent USC athletics official Donna Heinel a fabricated athletic profile saying Huneeus' daughter was a talented water polo player, and the profile even included an photo of a random water polo player, according to the complaint. His daughter was then conditionally accepted into USC in November.

Heinel has pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy to commit racketeering charge.

Later, after Singer began cooperating with prosecutors, he called Huneeus and told him he was being audited and that they should falsely tell authorities that the $50,000 sent to Singer's fake charity was to help underserved children.

"Dude, dude, what do you think, I'm a moron?" Huneeus responded.

"I'm going to say that I've been inspired how you're helping underprivileged kids get into college," he added. "Totally got it."

Huneeus' daughter was one of the children who was sent a target letter by federal prosecutors, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation.

Target letters are used to inform a person that a grand jury is reviewing evidence that could be used to charge him or her with a crime. In this situation, they are standard letters that don't go into a lot of details but advise the recipient to get in touch with prosecutors, according to the source. She has not been charged in the case.

CNN's Brynn Gingras contributed to this report.

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