Stanford coach, local parents among 50 charged in college admissions bribery scheme

John Vandemoer was fired as Stanford's head sailing coach after an indictment was unsealed today that accuses him of accepting bribes to get students into Stanford.

The former head sailing coach at Stanford, John Vandemoer, is among 50 people charged today (March 12) in a scheme in which wealthy parents and even some Hollywood stars bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country, federal prosecutors said.

The mid-Peninsula residents indicted include:

• Manuel and Elizabeth Henriquez of Atherton. He is the CEO of a finance company based in Palo Alto.

• Amy and Gregory Colburn of Palo Alto

• Davina and Bruce Isackson of Hillsborough

• Majorie Klapper of Menlo Park

• Peter Jan “PJ” Sartorio of Menlo Park

• Marci Palatella of Hillsborough

(Here’s a link to a list of those indicted and the indictment itself.)

Authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the $25 million bribery case, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, against 50 people in all.

The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.

At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance or business, were among those charged in the investigation. Dozens, including actress Felicity Huffman, were arrested by midday.

In addition to Stanford, coaches worked at Yale, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, USC and UCLA. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to label their children recruited athletes to boost their chances of getting into college. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams, and paid off insiders at testing centers to alter students’ scores.

Up to $6.5 million per student

Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission, officials said.

“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.

Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.

No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of the fraud.

Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience.

That, in turn, boosted the students’ chances of admission.

The bribes allegedly came through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach. Authorities said parents paid William Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, approximately $25 million to get their children into college.

Prosecutors said Singer was scheduled to plead guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy.

What the Stanford coach allegedly did

Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, was also expected to plead guilty today (March 12).

The indictment claims Vandemoer worked with Singer to create “a student-athlete ‘profile’” that “falsely suggested” a Stanford applicant was an elite sailor in the fall of 2017.

In exchange, Singer paid Vandemoer $110,000 from a bogus charity, The Key Worldwide Foundation, which was funded by parents eager to get their kids into elite schools, the federal complaint said.

Around the summer of 2018, the student chose to attend a different university. Singer then paid Vandemoer $500,000 to reserve the spot for another of Singer’s clients, the prosecutors said.

The second Singer client decided not to apply to Stanford. Singer sent Vandemoer $160,000 through KWF, which the two agreed would be a “deposit” for a future recruit, according to prosecutors.

Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches accused of involvement. Stanford fired Vandemoer, UCLA suspended its soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.

Several schools, including USC and Yale, said they were victims themselves of the scam. USC also said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent further such abuses.

Scandal reaches into Hollywood

Lori Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House,” while Felicity Huffman starred in ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Both were charged with fraud and conspiracy.

Messages seeking comment from Huffman’s representative were not immediately returned. A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.

Loughlin and her husband allegedly gave $500,000 to have their two daughters labeled as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team, even though neither participated in the sport. Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, who has a popular YouTube channel, attends USC.

Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance-exam cheating scam.

Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he “controlled” a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter’s answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.
Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.

Macy told Parade magazine in January that the college application process for their daughter was stressful. The couple’s daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.

“She’s going to go to college. I’m the outlier in this thing. We’re right now in the thick of college application time, which is so stressful,” Macy said.

Prosecutors said parents involved in the scheme were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves, with extended time, to make it easier to pull off the tampering.

— From staff and wire reports

24 Comments

  1. why am i not surprised? This is how Stanford rolls. You have the money, you get what every you want. That’s the culture at Stanford, anything is for sale to the highest bidder.

    • In Silicon Valley, it is an open secret that half a million donated to Stanford will get your kid a bypass of the competition for admission.

  2. @Anonymous, you said “this is how Stanford rolls” … while that may fit your preconceived notions, I didn’t see any mention of the university’s awareness or complicity in the scheme. At least in Stanford’s case, I see there was a corrupt coach … but no mention of the administration or admissions staff of any of the affected institutions being involved in any way:

    “Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches accused of involvement. Stanford fired Vandemoer, UCLA suspended its soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.

    “Several schools, including USC and Yale, said they were victims themselves of the scam. USC also said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent further such abuses.”

      • >Hope so

        Consider the student who got in through “help” in the SAT or other such test (as reported), “help” that bumped their scores to levels they would not have achieved on their own.
        How did they perform once inside Stanford or Yale…?
        We’d expect they would be flailing and failing, especially when competing with their peers who made it in on their own. That immediately suggests they should indeed be expelled.
        However it is another thing if they are doing reasonably well, say about as well as their peers. That would suggest: a) “Grade Inflation”; b) the “corrupt system” also involves the professors; c) just about anyone could do well at Stanford and this whole thing about SAT/AP/etc is just nonsense that we were fed to distract us from what’s the actual truth and fact.

        Only continued investigation would reveal which of this holds true.

    • I hope they take it case by case. If there is no reasonable evidence the kids knew and willingly participated, then yes. It’s *possible* some of them didn’t even know about the fraud (e.g. fixed test scores. Obviously the kids accepted to a sport they didn’t do would have known it was bogus). I would also argue that some of these kids were just under the control of overly demanding parents – some of these kids just might be the biggest victims of all. Probably not Lori Laughlin’s kid though, given her facebook posts…

      These kids are going to take the brunt of the damage either way. I feel bad for the kids that didn’t know what their parents were up to, or else felt like they had to go along because… It was their parents!

  3. What a look. Parents bribing Stanford officials, Stanford officials going on LSD trips and stabbing people. Leland and Jane are spinning in their graves.

  4. If Stanford has any integrity, it would hire out outside investigator to find out how many other students were admitted after their parents paid out bribes like the ones described in the indictment. I suspect this indictment is just the tip of the iceberg.

  5. This indictment seems to explain something I’ve seen many times. I’ve met Stanford graduates who are as dumb as rocks. They can’t do basic math. They can’t write a grammatically correct sentence. Not all of them. Some are quite bright, as you would expect. But others make you shake your head and ask, “Did you really get a diploma from Stanford?” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since it is well known that private universities like Stanford will admit a student whose parents are famous (the Clintons, Katie Couric, Rob Lowe, Cary Grant, Ken Starr) to elevate the prestige of the school. They also will accept sub-par applicants if their parents have donated large sums to the school for a building. And the kids of the rich and famous bring down the average. But I don’t think that entirely explains this phenomena of stupid Stanford graduates.

  6. While our children were in the Stanford Club Water Polo team, we were often solicited for donations to the coach retirement fund. We did not contribute as it felt wrong. But it was understood that if you wanted help with your player’s college admissions, you should contribute. They did not help our players.

  7. Imagine if the focus on Title IX compliance was applied to admissions. Did an applicant really do all of those extracurricular activities? Was there a quid pro quo for the recommendations? What donations have the parents made to the school? Federal regulation of admissions procedures might be necessary for any school that receives government money.

  8. As a graduate back in 1975, I long since decided to stop my gifting to Stanford. Sadly, the administration has lost their way since the ’70’s. The University may have academic rankings, yet they are turning out many graduates without souls and the Board has succumbed to those trolling social media. The focus seem to be on how PC can you be. People like “Professor” Michelle Dauber would never have landed there when Stanford was a real university. Leland and Jane would want their farm back.

    By the way, I miss the bonfires at Lake Lagunita. Tiger Salamanders….really? I bet no one could find one there today.

  9. This is pathetic. It doesn’t matter if you work hard to get good grades, do extracurriculars and all the rest. They’ll just sell your spot to the highest bidder.

  10. The real outrage should be directed at the government and government prosecutors for wasting taxpayer dollars on what amount to be civil cases at best. If the fraud was committed against the universities, then the employees involved can be punished/fired and the students expelled. Who could bring a civil action against these parents who “bribed” the test takers? Did the government suffer a loss? No. Did the universities lose money or were they the victims of theft? Possibly, if the bribes that were paid to the test fixers would have gone to the universities as legal charitable donations. Was anybody assaulted, battered, or physically harmed? This looks like some ambitious U.S. Attorney wanting to make a name for himself.

    Maybe there is a lesson is all of this. If you want to boost your kid’s chances of getting into one of these elite universities, bribe the universities directly, don’t try to go around the system.

    • Fraud and racketeering are these little things called federal crimes. Federal crimes are investigated and prosecuted by a federal agency. Do you know why Fraud and racketeering are federal crimes? Suggest you educate yourself.

  11. None of the students John Vandemoer tried to get in were actually admitted to Stanford. See the statement by Stanford University below:

    https://news.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/stanford-statement/

    “The charges state that sailing head coach John Vandemoer accepted financial contributions to the sailing program from an intermediary in exchange for agreeing to recommend two prospective students for admission to Stanford. Neither student came to Stanford; one student was initially denied admission and intended to reapply but never did, and the second never completed an application. However, the behavior in the case runs completely counter to Stanford’s values.”

  12. No criminal case? Seriously!?!?

    If you consider only the millions of dollars fraudulently “donated” to a bogus the 501c3 (and deducted as a charitable contribution) then every donation becomes a charge of felony tax fraud. You can add to that the federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud. That’s just the beginning!

    As the investigation continues and parents seek deals by providing greater detail and implicating others involved I could see this being designated as a criminal enterprise with federal RICO laws coming into play. Evidence shows that the parents, coaches, administrators (Dona Heinel), and Singer would work together beyond helping their own children, attempting to exert influence for other applicants of future “to be determined” admits.

    This is DEFINITELY a criminal case and will, hopefully) lead to congressional action to restore what should be the meritocratic nature of this process.

    The appalling thing to me is how little discussion is going on about the College Board (SAT & AP tests) and the ACT administrations. It’s time to do away with these standardized tests as a means of determining academic or personal readiness for undergraduate admission. Transcripts, student written essays or project portfolios (with no editing beyond that of the applicant), and a good interview with an admissions representative or vetted alumni should be the primary considerations for admission.

    For the most elite universities a need-blind match system like that used for medical residencies should be considered.

    Just my two cents…

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