More parents plead guilty in US college admissions scandal

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Felicity Huffman leaves the federal courthouse with her husband William H. Macy after being sentenced in connection with a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme. Picture: Reuters/Katherine Taylor

Boston — One father conspired to pay bribes to get two children admitted to the University of Southern California — one as a recruit in soccer, the other in football. A couple plotted to cheat on college entrance exams for their two daughters. A mother worried that her daughter might figure out that she was trying to get her a fake ACT score, saying, on a call that turned out to be recorded by authorities, “She already thinks I’m up to, like, no good.”

Four parents — including the former head of one of the world’s biggest asset managers and an heir to a fortune created by microwaveable snacks — pleaded guilty Monday in the nation’s largest college admissions prosecution. With trials drawing closer and prosecutors warning of new charges, the four were part of a new wave of parents pleading guilty to using lies and bribery to secure their children’s admission to elite colleges.

Among them was Douglas Hodge, a former chief executive of Pimco and one of the most prominent business executives caught up in the scandal. He admitted that he conspired to pay more than $500 000 in bribes to get two of his children admitted to USC as athletic recruits.

“I accept full and complete responsibility for my conduct,” Hodge said in a statement. “I have always prided myself on leading by example, and I am ashamed of the decisions I made. I acted out of love for my children, but I know that this explanation for my actions is not an excuse.”

The other parents who pleaded guilty Monday were Manuel Henriquez, the founder and former chief executive of Hercules Capital, a financial firm in Palo Alto, California; his wife, Elizabeth; and Michelle Janavs, of Newport Coast, California, whose father and uncle invented Hot Pockets.

More than a dozen parents caught up in the scandal, including actress Felicity Huffman, pleaded guilty months ago in connection with the far-reaching cheating scheme that prosecutors revealed in March. But others among nearly three dozen parents charged, including Hodge, had entered not guilty pleas and, until now, appeared headed for trial.

The new group of guilty pleas reflected what lawyers involved in the case said was an intense campaign by the U.S. attorney’s office to press the remaining parents to reverse course.

According to several of the lawyers involved in the case, prosecutors gave some parents deadlines of Monday or a few days before to agree to plead guilty, or risk facing a new charge that had the potential to bring a longer sentence. These lawyers said that they now expected prosecutors to bring that new charge — known as federal programs bribery — against most, if not all, of the parents who stick to their not-guilty pleas. Two of the lawyers said that it was possible that additional parents would also be charged in the scandal.

A representative for the US attorney’s office declined to comment.

The parents who pleaded guilty on Monday all told the judge, either on their own or through lawyers, that prosecutors had assured them they would not face additional charges if they pleaded guilty. All four pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud.

The hearings were emotional at times. Manuel Henriquez had difficulty speaking as he was sworn in and answered questions from the judge, Nathaniel M. Gorton of the District of Massachusetts. At one point during his hearing, his wife, who was in the courtroom, hunched forward, crying.

Prosecutors accused Manuel and Elizabeth Henriquez of conspiring to cheat on college entrance exams for their two daughters, as well as paying $400 000 to bribe the tennis coach at Georgetown University to designate their older daughter as a recruit to the team based on false credentials.

When Gorton asked Manuel Henriquez if he had anything to add to the lead prosecutor’s description of the allegations, Henriquez spoke in a halting voice.

“I’m going to start off by saying, Your Honour, that I am deeply sorry for the actions that I have taken and the awful and destructive impact it has had on the family, my children,” and children “just like me who have severe learning issues,” he said without further explanation. “I never intended to hurt anybody in this process.”

He said that, while he believed he was guilty of the criminal charges, he disputed the claim that he had conspired to bribe the tennis coach. Rather, he said he had believed he was making a donation to the Georgetown tennis programme.

He said that William Singer, a college consultant whom prosecutors have described as the mastermind of the scheme, told him that part of the $400 000 Manuel Henriquez was paying to a foundation led by Singer would go to the tennis program and “would hopefully assure my daughter’s admission.”

“I provided a donation to the foundation rather than to the university directly,” he said, “because Mr. Singer insisted that that was the way it had to be done.”

Singer has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges and is cooperating with the government.

According to prosecutors, Janavs agreed to pay $200 000 to get her older daughter admitted to USC as a volleyball recruit, despite her not being qualified for that status. Prosecutors said that Janavs also agreed to pay $100 000 to cheat on both of her daughters’ ACT exams.

Among the parents who have pleaded not guilty is the second actress charged in the case, Lori Loughlin. While Hollywood gossip magazines have reported that Loughlin was anxious about the case and regretted her not-guilty plea, there has been no indication that she intends to change her plea. A lawyer for Loughlin did not respond to a question about her plans.

The New York Times

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