Court of Appeals Overturns Fraud and Conspiracy Conviction in Varsity Blues Scandal

In a stunning reversal, a federal appeals court overturned fraud and conspiracy convictions on Wednesday of two parents found guilty of participating in a sprawling bribery scheme, known as Operation Varsity Blues, that ensnared dozens of wealthy parents who forged their children's credentials. . gain acceptance to prestigious universities across the country.

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Massachusetts found that the lower court had made a crucial misstep in the trials of Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, and John Wilson, a private equity financier. However, the court upheld Mr.'s conviction. Wilson for tax fraud.

The court of appeals made its decisions based largely on two technical legal grounds.

First, it was ruled that a lower court judge had wrongly instructed a jury that the acceptance slot was property. “We are not saying the behavior of the defendants was completely undesirable,” the ruling read. But the appeals judge blamed the government for being too broad in its argument, getting to the point where “decking in kindergarten applications could amount to property fraud prohibited by federal law.”

The court also found that the government had failed to prove that the two men agreed to engage in a conspiracy with another parent, who, like them, was a client of William Singer, known as Rick, a college admissions consultant for the rich, wealthy. mastermind of the acceptance scheme.

The conspiracy charge allows the government to introduce evidence of the wrongdoing of other parents, creating a risk of bias against the accused, the judge said in the 156-page decision.

A spokesperson for the US attorney's office for Massachusetts said Wednesday that the office is “reviewing the opinion issued by the First Circuit Court of Appeals and assessing next steps.”

The victory in the court of appeals was striking as Mr Wilson and Mr Abdelaziz were the first to take their chances in front of a jury. Dozens of other wealthy parents, including several celebrities, pleaded guilty, ostensibly to the strictest prosecution. The investigation becomes a symbol of how rich, prestige-obsessed parents have turned elite universities into branded commodities.

“Almost everyone pleaded guilty, so the government's legal theory isn't really tested until the case is decided,” Joshua Sharp, the attorney defending Abdelaziz's case, said on Wednesday.

While Mr Abdelaziz and Mr Wilson found weak points in the government's case, parents who plead guilty are unlikely to be able to challenge their convictions on equal grounds, legal experts said.

Mr Abdelaziz is accused of paying $300,000 in 2018 for his daughter to be accepted into the University of Southern California as a top-ranked basketball recruit even though she didn't make the varsity team in high school.

Mr. Wilson is accused of paying $220,000 in 2014 for his son to be accepted as a water polo recruit at USC, even though prosecutors said he was not good enough to compete at the university.

Mr Wilson is also accused of agreeing to pay $1.5 million in 2018 for his twin daughters, who are good students, to be admitted to Harvard and Stanford as recruited athletes.

They went on trial together in the fall of 2021; Mr Wilson was later sentenced to 15 months in prison, and Mr Abdelaziz to one year and one day. Their lawyers argued that the men thought they were making a legitimate donation to the university. They said they trusted Mr. Singer, as their campus consultant, to guide them.

The investigation involved more than 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; Ms husband Loughlin, Mossimo Giannulli, a fashion designer; and exam trainers and administrators, among others.

Mr Singer agreed to cooperate with the government and pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiracy charges. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in January.