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USC emails show brazen pay-to-play policy, indicted dad says

Internal records between top administrators at the University of Southern California suggest a “university-wide program” linking big donations and promises of future gifts with decisions on who gets in, according to defense attorneys for a father indicted in the U.S. college-admissions scandal.

Miami developer Robert Zangrillo’s lawyers are gathering evidence that will “undermine the mythology that a donation to a USC athletic department somehow is proof of any element of a federal crime,” they claimed in a court filing today that includes a spreadsheet charting donations, connections and SAT scores, among other factors.

It’s no secret that colleges give special attention to star high school athletes and the children of alumni and major donors. But after federal prosecutors in March announced criminal charges against nearly three dozen parents in the biggest university-admissions scam they have ever pursued, several defendants have said they will argue their donations were par for the course and far from bribes. They include the TV sitcom star Lori Loughlin and her husband, the designer Mossimo Giannulli, as well as Douglas Hodge, the former CEO of investment management giant Pimco.

USC’s own documents refute the college’s claim that the admissions office doesn’t track applicants’ donations, Zangrillo’s lawyers said in today’s filing. They cited a list of “special interest” candidates from 2012 to 2015 that includes notations of donations for many, such as “$3 mil to Men’s Golf-Thailand,” “$15 mil” and “previously donated $25K to Heritage Hall.”

Zangrillo’s lawyers claim that more than 80% of the “special interest” candidates got into USC, compared with an overall admission rate this year of 11%, a record low. They are seeking additional USC records from 2015 to 2019 showing the number of applicants categorized as “special interest” and the donations their families made within a year after they were admitted.

USC disputes the 80% claim. Dean of Admission Timothy Brunold said in an affidavit that the college doesn’t accept “the majority” of students tagged as special interest — though the school says it doesn’t track how many special interests are admitted. USC is fighting Zangrillo’s push for more records, calling it a “fishing expedition.”

“USC previously disclosed that like most private universities, we allow many departments, including Athletics, to mark certain applicants with a so-called special interest tag,” spokewoman Lauren Bartlett said in a statement. She called Zangrillo’s filing an effort to “divert attention from the criminal fraud for which he has been indicted” and said USC “remains confident that the court will agree with us that it need not produce the information and documents requested by the defendant.”

Lawyers for Zangrillo — who is accused of paying a total of $250,000 for a surrogate to take an online college course in art history for his daughter, after she got an F, and then to get her admitted as a rowing recruit at USC — say they will show that donations and powerful connections beat out merit in USC’s admissions process.

“The fact that the $50,000 check from Mr. Zangrillo appears to have been provided as part of a regular university-wide practice of accepting donations from families of prospective students and conferring a corresponding benefit upon those students in the admission process supports an argument that the payment was merely a donation, not an illicit bribe,” the defense told the court.

Zangrillo’s daughter was ultimately admitted through a “VIP list” and not as an athletic recruit.

Zangrillo’s filing includes emails between Brunold, the admissions dean, and Director of Admission Kirk Brennan in which they appear to joke about poor grammar used by a student the university was reconsidering for admission in 2018.

“Clear(ly) a well-qualified lad,” Brunold says, according to one of the exhibits in the filing.

“Good enough to shag balls for the tennis team anyway,” Brennan replies, according to the exchange.

The government has charged 34 parents in the scandal, of whom 15 have pleaded guilty to fraud. William “Rick” Singer has admitted to leading the sprawling operation, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and is cooperating in the prosecution.

As the U.S. has laid out the scheme, Singer took thousands of dollars from wealthy clients to fix their children’s entrance exam scores and hundreds of thousands in bribes for college athletic coaches to put the kids on recruiting rosters, assuring them of places in elite schools across the country, including USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown. None of the colleges or students have been charged.

But USC, Zangrillo’s attorneys told the court in today’s filing, “is far from the crime ‘victim’ that it claims to be.”

“Contrary to USC’s claims, the discovery suggests that money — whether in the form of prior donations, promised or pledged donations, or the expectation of donations from a targeted parent — matters deeply to the admission process at USC,” they argued.

They told the court they are seeking “all relevant communications,” including text messages and instant messages, involving admissions, the president’s office and other personnel.

“These documents are expected to fully demonstrate that the donation provided by Mr. Zangrillo was legitimate, welcomed and certainly not evidence of a criminal offense,” Zangrillo’s attorney Martin Weinberg said in an email.

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