BOSTON – Two wealthy parents sentenced to prison in the sprawling college admissions bribery scandal appealed their convictions on Monday, saying they believed they were making legitimate donations to get their children into elite universities.
John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz were found guilty in a jury trial last year after prosecutors said they paid bribes to cheat the college admissions system. Both men were convicted of fraud and bribery conspiracy, and Wilson was convicted of additional charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return.
Their sentences are the longest handed down in the case so far. Wilson, 62, was sentenced to 15 months in prison, while Abdelaziz, 64, was sentenced to a year.
The two men are the only parents who have gone to trial in the case, which has ensnared nearly 60 parents as well as college athletics officials.
Both have insisted they had no idea their money was being used for personal bribes, an argument they reiterated in their appeals. They were led to believe their money would go directly to colleges, their lawyers argued in new court filings, saying they’re no different than other wealthy parents who make donations to get a boost in the admissions process.
“Wilson’s donations were intended for the universities, not any individual,” Wilson’s lawyers wrote. “The universities cannot be both the victim and the beneficiary of the ‘bribes.’”
Wilson, a former Staples Inc. executive who heads a private equity firm, was accused of paying $220,000 to have his son admitted to the University of Southern California as a water polo recruit. Prosecutors said he later paid another $1 million to get his twin daughters into Harvard and Stanford, and then filed part of it as a tax write-off.
Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, was charged with paying $300,000 to get his daughter into USC as a basketball recruit even though she didn’t even make it onto her high school’s varsity team.
Their appeals ask for an acquittal of all charges or a new trial.
Both men portray themselves as victims of admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, the scheme’s alleged mastermind. They say Singer led them to believe the payments were for legal donations, then used the money for bribes. Singer has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the investigation.
According to Wilson's appeal, Singer “repeatedly described his donation strategy as legitimate." In reality, Singer pocketed $100,000 of Wilson's $220,000 payments to USC, the brief says.
In their appeals, they argue that the trial judge wrongly blocked evidence that would have bolstered their defenses.
Their lawyers said the judge excluded evidence proving that Singer described his plan as legitimate and legal. Lawyers for Abdelaziz say the judge blocked evidence showing that “USC regularly admitted students through the athletic department in exchange for donations.”
Both men faulted prosecutors for implying that Wilson and Abdelaziz were associated with other parents in the case, even though they didn't know Singers’ other customers and weren't aware of the scheme, their briefs said.
“Wilson was forced to convince the jury not only of his own good faith, but also that he was an outlier. That imposed an additional, if not insurmountable, burden,” his lawyers wrote.
At the trial in October, prosecutors argued that both men were well aware their payments were designed to get their children into college as athletic recruits with embellished credentials. They pointed to a water polo profile that Singer sent to Wilson for his son, listing fabricated swim times and awards.
Wilson’s lawyers said he never reviewed the email with the athletic profile, and they counter that his son was an accomplished water polo player who played in high school and was chosen as an all-star in his conference.
His son practiced and trained with the USC team throughout his freshman year, according to the appeal, and left only because he suffered a serious concussion. Teammates said he was just “like the rest of us,” the brief said.
Wilson also denies any wrongdoing in his daughters’ college applications. The twins had “perfect and near-perfect ACT scores,” the filing said, and they weren’t portrayed as athletes. Instead, Wilson aimed to get them nonplayer roles on sailing and crew teams at Harvard and Stanford. He said one daughter was actually a sailor, and the sports “fit their interests.”
In court documents, prosecutors pointed to a phone conversation between Wilson and Singer caught on an FBI wiretap. In it, Wilson discussed options for his daughters, asking, “Is there a two-for-one special? If you got twins?”
In one call, Wilson asked Singer 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 had a home on Cape Cod.
A fake athlete profile was also created for Abdelaziz's daughter, but his lawyers say there's no proof he ever saw it. And although Abdelaziz acknowledged his daughter was not a Division I-caliber basketball player, “she played basketball her first two years of high school and it remained one of her interests,” according to the filing.
Most other defendants have already pleaded guilty in the scheme and served their time. “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison. “Full House” star Lori Loughlin was sentenced to two months and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli was sentenced to five months.