BOSTON (AP) — Two wealthy parents sentenced to prison in the sprawling college admissions bribery scandal appealed their sentences on Monday, saying they believe they were making legitimate donations to get their children in 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 conspiracy to bribe, and Wilson was found guilty of additional charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return.
Their sentences are the longest handed down in the case to date. Wilson, 62, was sentenced to 15 months in prison, while Abdelaziz, 64, was sentenced to one year.
The pair are the only parents to stand trial in the case, which has ensnared nearly 60 parents as well as college sports officials.
Both 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 were no different from other wealthy parents who donated money to boost the admissions process.
“Wilson’s donations were intended for universities, not any individual,” Wilson’s attorneys wrote. “Universities cannot be both the victim and the beneficiary of ‘bribes’.”
Wilson, a former Staples Inc. executive who runs a private equity firm, was accused of paying $220,000 to get his son admitted to the University of Southern California as a water polo rookie. Prosecutors said he then paid an additional $1 million to get his twin daughters into Harvard and Stanford, then deposited some of it as a tax deduction.
Abdelaziz, a former casino manager, was accused of paying $300,000 to get his daughter into USC as a basketball rookie, even though she didn’t even make the team academic from his high school.
Their appeals seek an acquittal of all charges or a new trial.
Both men pose as victims of admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, the alleged mastermind of the scheme. They say Singer led them to believe the payments were for legal donations and 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 in payments to USC, the brief states.
In their appeals, they argue that the trial judge improperly blocked evidence that would have bolstered their defenses.
Their attorneys said the judge ruled out evidence proving Singer called his plan legitimate and legal. Abdelaziz’s lawyers say the judge blocked evidence showing that “USC routinely admitted students through the athletic department in exchange for donations.”
Both men criticized prosecutors for suggesting that Wilson and Abdelaziz were associated with other relatives in the case, even though they did not know Singers’ other clients and were unaware of the scheme. according to their memoirs.
“Wilson was forced to convince the jury not only of his own good faith, but also that he was an outlier. This imposed an additional, if not insurmountable, burden,” his lawyers wrote.
At the trial in October, prosecutors argued that both men were well aware that their payments were intended to get their children into college as athletic recruits with embellished credentials. They pointed to a water polo profile Singer sent Wilson for his son, listing swim times and fabricated awards.
Wilson’s lawyers say he never reviewed the email with the sports profile, and they counter that his son was an accomplished water polo player who played in high school and was chosen as a star in the of his conference.
His son practiced and practiced with the USC team throughout his freshman year, according to the call, and only left because he suffered a severe concussion. His teammates said he was just “like all of us,” according to the brief.
Wilson also denies any wrongdoing in his daughters’ college applications. The twins had “perfect and near-perfect ACT scores,” according to the filing, and they weren’t billed as athletes. Instead, Wilson aimed to give them non-playing roles on the sail and crew teams at Harvard and Stanford. He said one girl was actually a sailor and that sports “matched 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 have twins?
During a call, Wilson asked Singer which sport “would be best” for his twin daughters. Singer replied that it “didn’t matter” and that he would “make him a sailor or something” because Wilson had a home on Cape Cod.
A fake athlete profile has also been created for Abdelaziz’s daughter, but his lawyers say there is no evidence he ever saw her. And although Abdelaziz acknowledged that his daughter was not a Division I basketball player, “she played basketball her first two years of high school and it remained one of her interests,” according to the report. case.
Most of the other defendants have already pleaded guilty to the scheme and served their sentences. ‘Desperate Housewives’ star Felicity Huffman has been sentenced to 14 days in jail. ‘Full House’ star Lori Loughlin was sentenced to two months and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli was sentenced to five months.
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