• Sat. Dec 3rd, 2022

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Former USC water polo coach convicted in college admission scandal, ending prosecutions

A Boston jury on Friday convicted a former University of Southern California water polo coach on all charges connected to his role in a massive college admissions scam, ending a far-reaching prosecution that rocked higher education.

It took less than five hours for the federal panel to convict the 60-year-old Jovan Vavic, who had led his Trojans to 16 national men’s and women’s titles, of fraud and bribery. Prosecutors said he received about $250,000 in bribes for designating unqualified students as water polo recruits so they could attend USC.

After the conviction, Vavic walked past reporters without answering any questions. Lawyers for Vavic argued he was just doing what he could to raise money for his dominant, championship-winning program as athletic officials had demanded. They maintained he never lied, never took a bribe and was a victim of USC’s desire to cover up a “pervasive culture” of accepting wealthy students who could provide donation windfalls.

The university, which fired Vavic after his 2019 arrest, has stressed its admissions processes are “not on trial.”

The convictions closed the book on “Operation Varsity Blues” prosecutions as 56 defendants have pleaded guilty, been convicted or deferred prosecution, with admission of guilt. One person received a presidential pardon.

There are still sentencing hearings and appeals scheduled, but all matters of guilt or acquittal have been settled.

U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins called these prosecutions “one of the largest scandals in the history of academia.”

“In March 2019, my predecessor Andrew Lelling stood here announcing charges against 57 people nationwide for cheating on college entrance exams and bribing athletic coaches to secure admissions to elite colleges and universities,” Rollins told reporters after the Vavic verdict.

“It is my privilege to stand here today just over three years later, to announce that justice has been served to every single person from fake proctors to test takers to coaches to the parents, to the mastermind and con man himself Rick Singer, have been held accountable.”

Actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were the most high- profile defendants in the scandal that erupted three years ago.

Parents paid scheme organizer William “Rick” Singer millions of dollars to boost chances of their kids getting into elite universities such as Yale, Georgetown and Stanford.

He arranged for standardized tests to be taken or altered for these well-heeled parents’ children and paid coaches to pass off those students as high-level athletes worthy of special admission.

Singer, who has been cooperating with the FBI and prosecutors, is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 8.

“To say that the conduct in this case was reprehensible is an understatement,” Rollins said. “The rich, powerful and famous, dripping with privilege and entitlement, used their money and clout to steal college admissions spots from more qualified and deserving students.”

Also Friday, a key figure in the scheme, test-taker Mark Riddell, was sentenced to four months in prison.

Riddell, 39, of Palmetto, Florida, pleaded guilty in April 2019, one month after the sweeping college cheating case was announced.

Riddell sometimes took exams in place of students, and in other instances, he posed as a proctor — who oversee the tests — and then later corrected the answers given, prosecutors said. He also paid bribes to test administrators at a location in Houston and one in West Hollywood, California.

Prosecutors said that over eight years Riddell fraudulently inflated the scores of 24 students.

The four months in prison was the term that prosecutors sought. Riddell was also sentenced to two years of supervised release and must forfeit $239,449, which is what the government said he received in payment.

Riddell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, as well as conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The Associated Press and Phil Helsel contributed.