BOSTON (Reuters) – A lawyer for a former University of Southern California water polo coach accused of playing a key role in the U.S. college admissions scandal by accepting bribes to help admit students argued Thursday that he never lied and had sought legitimate donations from wealthy parents.
Defense lawyer Stephen Larson told a Boston federal jury at the end of a four-week trial that it was part of Jovan Vavic’s job to raise money for his championship team at USC and recruiting wealthy parents’ children to do that was “proper.”
Prosecutors allege that in exchange for more than $200,000, Vavic for years misled USC admissions officials into believing that unqualified high school students belonged on his championship water polo team, regardless of their abilities.
They said that money came via William “Rick” Singer, a “corrupt” college admissions consultant who pleaded guilty in 2019 to facilitating the admission of his clients’ children at schools like USC, Yale and Stanford through fraud and bribery.
Fifty-seven people have been charged in the wide-ranging “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation and 51 have pleaded guilty, including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who were some of Singer’s many wealthy clients.
But Larson said much of the money in Vavic’s case was used to support his team at USC, where there was a “constant refrain and chorus” for coaches to raise money.
While he at times recruited children from families that could donate to the school, Larson said he only picked ones who could be “legitimately” admitted.
“There’s no law that says a university can’t sell slots to the highest bidder,” he said in his closing argument. “There’s no law.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright, though, said Vavic lied about their athletic abilities to secure $100,000 for his team that would benefit him professionally and also $120,000 to cover Vavic’s sons’ private school tuition.
“It was money that caused this defendant to cross the line,” she said.
She said the students Vavic recruited included the son of private equity financier John Wilson, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison after being convicted in October with another parent in the scandal’s first trial. He is appealing.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bernadette Baum)