CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — He was not among the most famous people ensnared in the sweeping college admissions investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues, which included Hollywood celebrities and a prominent designer, but he was among the more colorful: the founder of a Miami private investment firm who was a fan of Burning Man and known for lavish parties.
And on Wednesday, the investor, Robert Zangrillo, was among 73 people pardoned by Donald J. Trump during the former president’s final hours in office, absolving him of responsibility in a case that has sent other parents to prison.
In June 2018, according to prosecutors, Mr. Zangrillo and his daughter Amber got on the phone with a college consultant to discuss her college prospects. She had already been rejected once by the University of Southern California, but the consultant, William Singer, had a plan to get her in as a transfer student, according to court documents.
Mr. Singer, who is cooperating with prosecutors, told the father and daughter that he had convinced U.S.C. athletic officials to designate Ms. Zangrillo as a recruit for the crew team, even though she did not row competitively, in exchange for “help.”
But there was more to the plan, according to prosecutors. To secure her admission, Ms. Zangrillo needed to finish online classes that she had listed on her application, and that was proving to be a problem. On the phone call, which was recorded by investigators, Ms. Zangrillo asked Mr. Singer what he was doing about an “F” she had received in an online art history class, the documents show. Mr. Singer said that an employee of his was retaking the class for her and was almost done.
Mr. Zangrillo asked: Could the employee also take his daughter’s biology class? The employee, who was on the call, said she could.
Ms. Zangrillo was admitted to U.S.C. that same month. Nine months later, in March 2019, Mr. Zangrillo was arrested and charged with fraud. Prosecutors said he had paid $250,000 as part of a conspiracy to defraud U.S.C. of an admissions spot. He pleaded not guilty and was set to stand trial in September.
His lawyer, Martin Weinberg, had argued that Mr. Zangrillo had made a legitimate donation to the university and that, rather than being a victim, U.S.C. had welcomed donations by people seeking to improve their children’s chances in the admissions process. Mr. Zangrillo and Mr. Weinberg declined to comment on Wednesday.
Some of the more than three dozen other parents charged in the Varsity Blues investigation, including the Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have pleaded guilty and completed prison sentences.
The White House, in its list of the pardons issued by Mr. Trump on Wednesday, described Mr. Zangrillo as “a well-respected business leader and philanthropist” and said that Ms. Zangrillo “did not have others take standardized tests for her” — a reference to other parents in the case who were charged with falsifying their children’s SAT or ACT scores.
The Trump White House also said that Ms. Zangrillo “is currently earning a 3.9 G.P.A.” at U.S.C., but the university said in a statement that Ms. Zangrillo was not currently enrolled there.
The U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, Andrew E. Lelling, a Trump appointee who spearheaded the admissions case, said in a statement that the charges against Mr. Zangrillo, “including having his own daughter knowingly participate in a scheme to lie to U.S.C. about her accomplishments and grades, illustrates precisely why Operation Varsity Blues was necessary in the first place.”
President Trump has discussed potential pardons that could test the boundaries of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here’s some clarity on his ability to pardon.
- May a president issue prospective pardons before any charges or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” It is unusual for a president to issue a prospective pardon before any charges are filed, but there are examples, perhaps most famously President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon in 1974 of Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from being prosecuted after the Watergate scandal.
- May a president pardon his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not bar pardons that raise the appearance of self-interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may provoke a political backlash and public shaming. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a slew of controversial pardons, including to his half brother, Roger Clinton, over a 1985 cocaine conviction for which he had served about a year in prison, and to Susan H. McDougal, a onetime Clinton business partner who had been jailed as part of the Whitewater investigation.
- May a president issue a general pardon? This is unclear. Usually, pardons are written in a way that specifically describes which crimes or sets of activities they apply to. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything.
- May a president pardon himself? This is unclear. There is no definitive answer because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. As a result, there has never been a case which gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the question. In the absence of any controlling precedent, legal thinkers are divided about the matter.
- Find more answers here.
Mr. Lelling added, “It is the highest calling of the criminal justice system to hold all people equally to account, regardless of wealth or privilege.”
How Mr. Zangrillo came to be pardoned is unclear. Representatives for two people the White House listed in support of its action — the billionaire investor Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a close friend of Mr. Trump’s and a U.S.C. trustee, and Sean Parker, a co-founder of Napster and early president of Facebook — said that they had not been involved.
“Mr. Barrack had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Zangrillo’s pardon,” a spokesman said. “He never intervened and never had discussion with anyone about it. All reports to the contrary are patently false.”
A spokesman for Mr. Parker said he did not know Mr. Zangrillo, had not advocated for him, and did not know how his name had ended up on the White House’s list.
Mr. Zangrillo has not donated to Mr. Trump and does not have a long history of political contributions.
Some parents charged in the admissions case have seen their careers implode. But as of October, Mr. Zangrillo remained employed by his firm, Dragon Global, according to a court filing from his lawyer, and received permission by the court to travel for business meetings to Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Mexico.
Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.