Two weeks after the jury acquitted of guilt father of Georgetown University on charges of bribing former Hoyas tennis coach Gordon Ernst, a federal judge last Friday sentenced Ernst to 30 months in prison and two years of supervised release. The sentence is the longest yet in Operation Varsity Blues, a scandal involving the prosecution of parents, coaches and admissions consultants who conspired to get high school students admitted to elite colleges as fake college athletes.
Last fall, Ernst pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery of federal programs, three counts of bribery of federal programs and one count of filing a false tax return. Ernst, who was also ordered to forfeit $3.4 million in ill-gotten gains, worked with pay-to-admit scheme architect Rick Singer, who will be sentenced in September. As part of the plea deal, Singer turned the tapes and relayed the taped calls so the feds could prosecute Ernst and sort out the others.
For more than ten years, Ernst helped at least 22 students gain admission to Georgetown as so-called tennis recruits. Ernst, the Justice Department explained, “regularly used at least two, and often as many as five, of the six recruiting slots that Georgetown assigned him each year to recruit unqualified students in exchange for bribes.
While there is little controversy over the dubious ethics of using bribes for college admissions, the classification of the practice as a felony punishable by imprisonment has sparked debate. The government’s theory of the crime centers on “honest services wire fraud,” which here refers to illegal banking transactions — such as checking online to move bribes — to deprive the university of the “honest services” of a coach or administrator.
In other words, the university is a “victim” in that it loses the employee’s legitimate job. If the same bribing parent donated the same amount to the university in the hope that it would increase the likelihood that the school would accept their child, the donation would not only be legal, but would likely garner praise from the school. However, since it was a bribe to the coach, the payment will turn into a crime.
Singer’s scheme ensured the issuance of an acceptance letter, while a college gift would not guarantee the same. This is the “side door” that Singer created: Pay him, and through staged photos, cheating on the SAT, and other types of entrance bullying, the kid will be accepted. This side door was more appealing, Singer argued, than either the “front door”—admission to highly selective schools based on merit—or the “back door”—legally donating millions of dollars to grease the skids for a child.
The government’s theory of the crime led to dozens of plea deals and several jury verdicts, but that failed with businessman Amin Khoury, whose daughter was accepted to Georgetown as a tennis player after Khoury allegedly paid Ernst a $180,000 bribe. Using evidence and testimony showing that elite colleges tend to favor applicants from wealthy families, Khoury’s legal team convinced jurors that what Khoury did was not significantly different from what other wealthy parents do — legally — for their children .