By MARK PRATT | Associated Press
BOSTON — The head of a private equity firm and former Staples Inc. executive convicted of bribery and fraud charges for trying to pay more than $1.2 million to buy his three children’s way into elite universities asked the court Friday to allow him to remain free pending his appeal.
John Wilson, 62, was sentenced last month to 15 months in prison, the longest sentence so far handed down in the sprawling college admissions bribery scandal dubbed Operation Varsity Blues that ensnared nearly 60 parents as well as college athletic officials.
Wilson was accused of paying $220,000 to have his son designated as a University of Southern California water polo recruit, and $1 million to buy his twin daughters’ ways into Harvard and Stanford, and then filing a false tax return claiming part of it as a tax write-off.
His attorneys in their motion Friday made several arguments: the prosecution’s legal theories as to what constitutes crimes in the case are not viable and have divided other judges; he was not involved in a conspiracy as the government alleged because he had no contact with other parents charged in the case; relevant evidence that could have been favorable to their client was excluded at trial; and their client is not a flight risk.
“In short, Mr. Wilson’s appeal presents a host of complex, unresolved questions that could well lead to acquittal, a new trial, or partial reversal resulting in a materially shorter sentence,” they wrote in the motion.
A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
The defense’s motion questions whether Wilson’s payments should even be considered bribes.
“The government maintains that Mr. Wilson committed ‘bribery,’ under the honest services statute by seeking to donate to college athletic programs in purported exchange for his children’s admission … yet there is no precedent for treating as a ‘bribe’ a payment to the institution that is the purported victim of the offense,” the filing said.
The motion also questioned whether Wilson should have been convicted of wire fraud.
While the prosecution said Wilson’s actions constituted mail or wire fraud because he sought “property” in the form of “admission slots,” his lawyers argued in the motion that “offers of admission do not bear the typical features of property, and have not historically been treated as property.”
The motion also says evidence that University of Southern California officials regularly consider financial donations in the admission of athletic candidates, including as practice players and for non-athlete roles, was excluded by the court.
In addition to the 15-month prison term, Wilson, who lives in the Boston suburb of Lynnfield, was also ordered to serve two years of supervised release, perform 400 hours of community service, pay a $200,000 fine and pay $88,546 in restitution to the IRS.
After his conviction, Wilson’s lawyers urged leniency, citing many letters of support from friends, including members of the Kennedy clan. Edward M. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late Massachusetts senator, and Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, said they have known Wilson for years as a neighbor in Hyannisport on Cape Cod.
Wilson remains free and no prison reporting date has been set.
Dozens of famous and wealthy parents, as well as about a dozen college coaches and athletic administrators, have been charged in the conspiracy, which involved payments to get undeserving children into elite U.S. universities with rigged test scores or inflated athletic accomplishments.
The purported ringleader was William “Rick” Singer, a college admissions consultant, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government’s investigation, prosecutors said. At trial, Wilson insisted he had no idea Singer was using his money as bribes and falsifying or exaggerating athletic credentials on behalf of his kids.
Most other defendants have already pleaded guilty in the scheme and served their time. “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison. “Full House” star Lori Loughlin was sentenced to two months and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli was sentenced to five months.