BOSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court Wednesday overturned all the fraud convictions of two parents who were found guilty of paying bribes to get their children into elite universities as part of a sprawling college admissions scandal.
The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit threw out all the convictions against Gamal Abdelaziz and all but one conviction of another father, John Wilson. The Boston-based appeals court upheld Wilson’s conviction on the charge of filing a false tax return.
A jury in federal court in Boston found the couple guilty in 2021 of buying their sons into school as athletic recruits in the first case to go to trial in the so-called «Operation Varsity Blues» scandal involving prestigious universities. of all country.
Abdelaziz, of Las Vegas, was accused of paying $300,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a basketball recruit even though she didn’t even make the varsity team at her high school.
Authorities alleged that Wilson, a former Staples Inc. executive, paid $220,000 to have his son designated as a USC water polo recruit and an additional $1 million to buy his twin daughters admission to Harvard and Stanford.
Lawyers for Wilson and Abdelaziz argued that their clients believed they were making legitimate donations and that the admissions consultant at the center of the scandal, William «Rick» Singer, presented his alleged «side door» scheme as legal. They said they were led to believe that their money would go directly to the universities, saying they are no different than other wealthy parents who make donations to boost the admissions process.
The three-judge panel for the 1st Circuit said the trial judge erred in telling the jury that admissions space constitutes the «property» of the universities under the mail and wire fraud law. The judges found that the government also failed to prove that the parents agreed to join the «general conspiracy between Singer and her clients.»
The government was allowed to present a “significant amount of powerful evidence relating to the wrongdoing of other parents in which these defendants had no part, creating an unacceptable risk that the jury will convict Abdelaziz and Wilson based on conduct.” of others instead of his own,” the judges wrote.
The ruling is a blow to prosecutors, who scored more than 50 convictions in the scandal which netted prominent businessmen, celebrities, and other wealthy parents from across the country. Coaches at schools including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of California, Los Angeles have admitted taking bribes.
A spokeswoman for Massachusetts US Attorney Rachael Rollins said her office is reviewing the opinion and evaluating its next steps.
Abdelaziz’s lawyers said in an emailed statement that their client «has maintained his absolute innocence from day one and is extremely grateful that the Court of Appeals has reversed his wrongful conviction.»
“We are pleased to have represented him in this matter and hope that Mr. Abdelaziz will put it behind him,” said attorneys Brian Kelly and Joshua Sharp.
Noel Francisco, Wilson’s attorney, said in an emailed statement that the decision «confirms what we knew all along: John Wilson’s case is fundamentally different from others in the broader Varsity Blues scandal.»
“All of their children were qualified to enter these schools on their own athletic and academic merits, and none of their money went to enrich any coach, it went to the schools themselves,” Francisco said. «We are reviewing the opinion to determine the appropriate next steps.»
wilson was sentenced last year to 15 months in prison and Abdelaziz was sentenced to a year behind bars, although the court later agreed that they could remain free pending their appeals.
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.
The ringleader of the plan, Singer, was sentenced in January to 3 1/2 years in prison.
Among the highest-profile parents to admit to the charges were «Full House» actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, who paid $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California. as recruits to the team, even though none of them played the sport. Loughlin served a two-month prison sentence, and Giannulli served a five-month sentence.
Others who have pleaded guilty include «Desperate Housewives» star Felicity Huffman, who paid $15,000 to improve her eldest daughter’s SAT scores. Huffman was sentenced to 14 days behind bars.