Former URI tennis coach among those pleading not guilty in college admissions bribery scandal
BOSTON - Several former athletic coaches and others accused of participating in the college admissions cheating and bribery scandal pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges Monday.
The developments here in federal court came nearly two weeks after prosecutors announced charges resulting from an investigation of an alleged plot to compromise the admissions process at several prominent universities.
Prosecutors charge that wealthy parents bankrolled a bribery scam in an effort to get their children into schools including Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities and the University of Southern California, among others.
Their funds were allegedly funneled into a two-part scheme. One part facilitated cheating on the ACT and SAT admission tests. In the other, applicants were designated as recruited athletes even though they had few or no athletic credentials.
In all, 50 people have been charged in a case that has raised numerous questions about inequities in college admissions.
Monday's appearances were part of the first wave of legal proceedings to result from what investigators call Operation Varsity Blues, with more court appearances - involving wealthy executives and celebrities - to come this week and next. The mastermind, college consultant William "Rick" Singer, has pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiracy counts of racketeering, money laundering and fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
Twelve defendants came to U.S. District Court Monday afternoon to answer the racketeering conspiracy charges. They appeared in groups of three before Magistrate Judge Page Kelley in a brisk sequence lasting about an hour. All entered not guilty pleas.
Among the first three to show was Gordon Ernst, a former Georgetown men's and women's tennis coach, who recently resigned as women's tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island. Prosecutors allege that Ernst received more than $2.7 million in bribes from Singer from 2012 to 2018 during his tenure at Georgetown. In exchange, prosecutors say, Ernst designated at least 12 applicants as tennis recruits, including some who did not play competitively - an action that facilitated their admission to the highly selective Jesuit university in Washington, D.C.
Others pleading not guilty included Donna Heinel, former senior associate athletic director at USC; Jovan Vavic, former USC water polo coach; Ali Khosroshahin, former USC women's soccer coach; Laura Janke, former USC assistant women's soccer coach; William Ferguson, Wake Forest University women's volleyball coach, who previously coached at USC; Jorge Salcedo, former men's soccer coach at the University of California at Los Angeles; Martin Fox, president of a private tennis academy; Igor Dvorskiy, director of a private school in Los Angeles; Mikaela Sanford, an employee of Singer's business; Steven Masera, an accountant and financial officer for Singer's business; and Niki Williams, a teacher in Houston who was a standardized test administrator.
During the hearing, the defendants said little as they faced Kelley. In few words, delivered at a variety of volumes and confidence levels, all 12 affirmed they understood the charges and said they were "not guilty."
If convicted, they could face sentences of up to 20 years in prison and significant fines.
Defendants and their attorneys declined to comment as they left the courtroom.
"I wish I could," Vavic said.
Stephen Larson, an attorney for Vavic, said in an email: "Jovan is not only a highly decorated water polo coach, having won 14 national championships, but a great family man of renowned integrity. He is innocent of these charges and will prove so in court."
Ferguson, the Wake Forest coach, is on administrative leave while he fights the accusation of wrongdoing. Prosecutors allege that Singer sent Ferguson $100,000 in 2017 - including $40,000 for the Wake Forest women's volleyball program and $50,000 for a private camp the coach controlled. In exchange, authorities allege, Ferguson designated one of Singer's clients as a volleyball recruit. Shaun Clarke, an attorney for Ferguson, said his client will clear his name.
"No one was admitted to Wake Forest who didn't earn it, as a student and as an athlete," Clarke said in a statement. "Bill Ferguson doesn't belong in this indictment."
Thirty-three parents have also been charged in the case with conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Many of them are scheduled to appear here in court on Friday. Others, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, are scheduled to appear April 3.
After the scandal broke, USC announced it was denying admission to applicants connected to Singer's scam and reviewing the status of current and former students who may have been implicated. The University of California at Berkeley and other schools said they were doing the same. Yale disclosed to the Yale Daily News on Sunday that it has rescinded the admission of a student "as a result of this matter."
Separately Monday, the Education Department wrote the presidents of eight universities tied to the admissions scandal requesting information to determine if their schools broke any rules associated with federal student aid programs, in what the agency termed a "preliminary investigation." The requests for information follow a statement on March 13 by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that said she would look into the matter.
"The allegations made and evidence cited by the Department of Justice raise questions about whether your institution is fully meeting its obligations" under federal education law and regulations, an agency official wrote. The letter, first reported by Politico, was sent to Yale University, Wake Forest University, the University of San Diego, Stanford University, Georgetown University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. The list was confirmed by a person familiar with the investigation.
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