Ex-USC water polo coach guilty in college admissions case

A former USC water polo coach was found guilty Friday of accepting bribes to circumvent the university’s admissions process by passing off applicants as promising athletic recruits.

Jovan Vavic, a legendary figure in his sport whom USC fired after his arrest in 2019, was convicted of bribery and fraud charges by a federal jury in Boston. Of 10 coaches and officials from seven elite universities accused of scheming with William “Rick” Singer, the admitted mastermind of a sprawling scam to get the children of wealthy clients into top-level schools, Vavic was the only one to take his case to trial.

In all, Vavic was the last among 56 parents, school officials and others charged in the scheme to either admit guilt or be convicted by a jury. One defendant, William Ferguson, a former volleyball coach at Wake Forest, reached a deal with prosecutors to resolve his case, while Robert Zangrillo, a Miami financier charged with conspiring with Singer to get his daughter into USC, was pardoned by former President Trump.

Dubbed by prosecutors as the “Varsity Blues” case, the investigation into Singer and his accomplices not only exposed a criminal subversion of admissions processes at some of the country’s most prestigious schools, but prompted a broader reckoning over how privilege, wealth and access to higher education have become intertwined.

Aside from the crimes committed by coaches and parents — bribes paid and accepted, tests fixed, academic and athletic credentials doctored — evidence also emerged in Vavic’s trial and other cases of special considerations that USC gives to applicants of wealthy families who might donate large sums to the school. Defense attorneys, arguing that the influence of wealth in college admissions was a matter of institutional practice, filed in court emails and spreadsheets that showed USC officials had discussed how much some applicants’ families stood to donate while weighing whether to admit them.

In Vavic’s case, prosecutors charged that the longtime coach had deceived USC by endorsing the children of Singer’s clients as skilled water polo recruits to boost their chances of being admitted, when, in fact, they played the sport unexceptionally or not at all. In exchange, Singer, whose college consulting business brought in millions from well-heeled clients, sent money to Vavic’s team account and paid his children’s private school tuition, prosecutors said.

Singer has pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit racketeering, fraud and money laundering and obstructing justice. He is awaiting sentencing.

A former USC soccer coach, Ali Khosroshahin, testified at Vavic’s trial that Singer had also asked him to help get clients’ children admitted as soccer recruits in exchange for payments to the soccer program, according to a court filing that quotes his testimony. When Khosroshahin initially balked, saying it “wasn’t right,” Singer called him a “boy scout,” said he needed to “stop being so black and white and look for the gray” and told him to talk with Vavic, he recalled.

Khosroshahin, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit racketeering in a deal with the government, said he met with Vavic in his office and recalled the advice Vavic offered. “He was very straightforward. His reaction was — this is exactly what he said. He said, ‘F— ‘em. Just do it. And tell them that they’re the best players you’ve seen.’ ”

Vavic’s attorneys had argued that prosecutors ignored the fact that at USC the potential for an applicant’s family to donate to the school was a factor in their admission. On the eve of trial, they filed in court emails showing that one USC official, discussing a family whose daughter had been admitted and was now asking for a job with the football team, wrote to a colleague: “You’ve done enough to get her in. They need to pay up.”

In a statement, USC said, “We respect the judicial process and the jury’s decision.”

Vavic and Khosroshahin are among four former USC employees convicted in the case. Laura Janke, who was Khosroshahin’s assistant, and Donna Heinel, once a top administrator in the school’s athletics department, pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

After Friday’s verdict, Joseph Bonavolanta, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said Vavic had “fostered a culture of corruption and greed” at USC.

“It is our sincere hope that many lessons have been learned as a result of this investigation,” Bonavolanta said, calling it a “wake-up call” for colleges to have safeguards to detect and prevent such corruption.

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