BOSTON, Nov 5 (Reuters) – A former senior associate athletic director at the University of Southern California pleaded guilty on Friday to participating in a vast fraud and bribery scheme that allowed wealthy parents’ children to gain admission to colleges as fake sports recruits.

Donna Heinel, 60, had been set to go before a federal jury in Boston later this month in the second trial to arise from the U.S. college admissions scandal. She instead pleaded guilty to committing honest services wire fraud.

Heinel admitted she submitted information to a USC admissions committee from the scheme’s mastermind, college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, about students that misled it into believing their applications came from coaches.

She did so from 2015 to 2019 in exchange for payments from Singer’s clients to USC accounts she professionally benefited from.

Heinel agreed not to appeal any prison sentence of 46 months or less. She is slated to be sentenced March 11.

Heinel is among 57 people charged in the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, which ensnared business executives and celebrities and exposed inequalities in U.S. higher education.

Singer pleaded guilty in 2019 to facilitating cheating on college entrance exams and helping bribe coaches and university athletic officials to secure the admission of children as phony athletes.

Forty-eight people have agreed to plead guilty, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

Heinel’s plea came after two fathers, former casino executive Gamal Aziz and private equity firm founder John Wilson, were convicted in October in the first trial in the scandal of buying their children’s way into USC.

Prosecutors alleged Singer’s clients made more than $1.3 million in payments to USC accounts that Heinel designated.

Prosecutors called the payments bribes, a characterization U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani on Friday questioned since Heinel did not personally pocket the funds.

But she ultimately accepted the plea after defense lawyer Nina Marino said the money helped Heinel improperly fulfill her duties to raise money for USC.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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