Parents convicted in college scam remain free during appeal

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FILE - John Wilson arrives at federal court, with his wife Leslie, on April 3, 2019 to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal in Boston. John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz convicted of buying their kids way into elite universities will stay out of prison while they appeal their cases in the college admissions bribery scheme, a Boston judge ordered Thursday, May 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

BOSTON – Two men convicted of buying their kids’ way into top universities will stay out of prison while they appeal their cases in the college admissions bribery scheme, a Boston judge ordered Thursday.

Also Thursday, another judge ruled that a woman who worked for the mastermind of the scheme and took online classes for students to boost their admission prospects won't serve time behind bars.

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John Wilson, a former Staples Inc. executive, and Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, were found guilty last year in the first case to go to trial in the admissions scheme involving wealthy parents and universities.

Dozens of wealthy parents and athletic coaches have pleaded guilty in the case, brought in 2019. They include TV actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin’s fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli.

Wilson was sentenced to 15 months in prison, while Abdelaziz was sentenced to a year. Their sentences are the longest handed down in the case so far.

U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton ruled the two can remain free on bail pending appeal of their convictions. His ruling came shortly after prosecutors dropped their opposition to the defense's bid to keep them of prison while they fight their case.

Abdelaziz, of Las Vegas, was charged with paying $300,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a basketball recruit even though she didn’t even make it onto her high school’s varsity team.

Wilson, who heads a Massachusetts private equity firm, was accused of paying $220,000 to have his son designated as a USC water polo recruit and an additional $1 million to buy his twin daughters’ ways into Harvard and Stanford.

Lawyers for Wilson and Abdelaziz have argued that their clients believed they were making legitimate donations and that the admissions consultant at the center of the scandal, Rick Singer, pitched his so-called “side door” scheme as a lawful one. Wilson's attorneys are attacking several aspects of the trial, including the judge's refusal to let jurors see evidence they say shows "USC regularly dressed up donors’ children as athletic recruits.”

Noel Francisco, the former U.S. solicitor general who Wilson hired to appeal his case, applauded the judge's decision.

“The fact is that John’s case is different from others in the Varsity Blues scandal. His children were qualified for admissions on their own merits, and none of his money was for enriching any one individual — instead it was for the schools and their athletic programs,” Francisco said in an emailed statement.

Brian Kelly, an attorney for Abdelaziz, said his client “is pleased with this result and now can focus on reversing his conviction" in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Later Thursday, a different federal court judge in Boston sentenced Mikaela Sanford, a former employee of Singer, to time already served.

Prosecutors say shortly after Sanford took the job with Singer, she began taking high school and college courses for students to help boost their grade point averages in exchange for money from Singer. She got $1,250 for high school and $2,500 for college courses, according to prosecutors.

Among other things, Sanford also put fake awards on students' college applications and changed students' race or ethnicity on applications to increase their chances of getting into schools, prosecutors said.

In seeking a sentence of time served, prosecutors noted in court documents that “everything she did was at Singer’s direction” and that she has accepted responsibility for her actions.

Singer, who began cooperating with investigators in 2018 in the hopes of getting a lighter punishment, has yet to be sentenced.

Sanford told U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani during her sentencing that she is sorry for what she described as a “horrible lapse in judgment and poor decision making.”

“I can guarantee, your honor, that I am so much more than this, so much better than this,” she said.

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