Trial opens for ex-USC coach in college bribery scandal

FILE - Jovan Vavic, a former University of Southern California water polo coach, arrives at federal court in Boston, March 25, 2019, to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. Opening arguments began, Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Boston federal court in Vavic's racketeering case, the only coach of the many implicated to take his case to trial. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File) (Steven Senne, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BOSTON – A decorated former water polo coach at the University of Southern California accepted thousands of dollars in bribes to fake athletic credentials and designate college applicants as water polo recruits so they could gain admission into the elite Los Angeles school, prosecutors argued as the latest trial in the sprawling college admissions bribery scandal opened Thursday in Boston federal court.

But lawyers for Jovan Vavic painted a starkly different picture, arguing the 60-year-old coach, who guided USC’s men’s and women’s water polo teams to 16 national championships, never took bribes and was simply doing his part to recruit players who could also bring a windfall of donations to the school, as USC officials wanted.

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“The evidence will show that the college admissions scandal is real, but coach Vavic was not a part of it,” Stephen Larson, Vavic’s lawyer, said in his opening statements in the trial, which is expected to last about four weeks. “Every dollar that parents donated to USC you will find stayed at USC. He did not take a dime.”

Prosecutors say Vavic received more than $200,000 in bribes from William “Rick” Singer, the college admissions consultant who was the mastermind of the scheme, which involved wealthy parents paying bribes to have their children admitted into elite schools using rigged test scores or bogus athletic accomplishments.

But Vavic’s lawyers maintain that some $100,000 was deposited directly into a USC account to benefit the water polo teams while about $120,000 in payments for the private high school tuitions of Vavic's sons were actually scholarships awarded by Singer’s nonprofit organization for their outstanding work as student-athletes.

“There’s no misappropriation, no fraud,” Larson argued.

Vavic’s lawyers also argue that their client, like other USC coaches, was pressured to fundraise for his teams and that the university has a culture of giving preferential admission to the children of prospective donors.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Stearns argued that USC was a victim in the scheme because Vavic lied about the students' athletic prowess. One hadn’t even played the sport in years even though the coach claimed she was a top-tier recruit, he said.

USC, which fired Vavic following his arrest in March 2019, stressed in a statement Thursday that the university and its admissions processes are "not on trial."

Vavic, who is also accused of helping recruit other coaches into the scheme, faces charges of fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery. He’s the only coach of the many implicated in the scheme to challenge his charges in court.

Most athletic officials and parents have already pleaded guilty to a range of crimes, including prominent coaches from Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. A number of parents have even completed their prison sentences, including Full House star Lori Loughlin, her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli and Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman.

In all, nearly 60 people were charged in the investigation dubbed by authorities as “Operation Varsity Blues.” Only two others besides Vavic have gone to trial.

Former Staples Inc. executive John Wilson was sentenced to serve 15 months in federal prison last month, the longest sentence so far handed down. And Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, was sentenced to serve one year and one day.

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