Trial opens for former USC coach in college bribery scandal

FILE - Former University of Southern California water polo coach Jovan Vavic arrives in federal court in Boston, March 25, 2019, to face charges in connection with a nationwide corruption scandal in the university admissions.  Opening arguments began Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Boston federal court in the racketeering case of Vavic, the only coach of many involved to take his case to court.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

FILE – Former University of Southern California water polo coach Jovan Vavic arrives in federal court in Boston, March 25, 2019, to face charges in connection with a nationwide corruption scandal in the university admissions. Opening arguments began Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Boston federal court in the racketeering case of Vavic, the only coach of many involved to take his case to court. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

PA

A decorated former water polo coach at the University of Southern California took thousands of dollars in bribes to falsify athletic credentials and designate college applicants as water polo recruits so that they can gain admission to the elite Los Angeles school, prosecutors said as the latest trial in the massive college admissions bribery scandal opened in federal court in Boston on Thursday.

But Jovan Vavic’s lawyers painted a starkly different picture, saying the 60-year-old coach, who guided USC’s men’s and women’s water polo teams to 16 national championships, never took bribes -de-vin and was simply doing its part to recruit players who could also bring a donation bonanza to the school, as USC officials wanted.

“Evidence will show that the college admissions scandal is real, but Coach Vavic was not a part of it,” Stephen Larson, Vavic’s lawyer, said in his opening statements for the trial, which is expected to last. about four weeks. “Every dollar parents gave to USC that you find stayed at USC. He didn’t take a dime.”

Prosecutors say Vavic took more than $200,000 in bribes from William “Rick” Singer, the college admissions consultant who was the mastermind of the scheme, which involved wealthy parents paying high fees. bribes to get their children into elite schools using fake test scores or fake athletic achievements. .

But Vavic’s attorneys say about $100,000 was deposited directly into a USC account to benefit water polo teams, while about $120,000 in private tuition payments for Vavic’s sons were in made scholarships by Singer’s nonprofit organization for their outstanding work as student-athletes. .

“There’s no embezzlement, no fraud,” Larson explained.

Vavic’s lawyers also argue that their client, like other USC coaches, was pressured to raise money for his teams and that the university has a culture of giving preferential admission to children of potential donors. .

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Stearns argued USC was a victim in the scheme because Vavic lied about the students’ athletic prowess. One of them hadn’t even played the sport in years, even though the coach claimed she was a top rookie, he said.

USC, which fired Vavic after his arrest in March 2019, stressed in a statement Thursday that the university and its admissions processes are “not on trial.”

Vavic, who is also accused of helping recruit other coaches into the scheme, faces charges of fraud and conspiracy to bribe. He is the only coach of the many involved in the scheme to challenge his charges in court.

Most sports officials and parents have already pleaded guilty to a range of crimes, including prominent coaches from Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. A number of parents have even served their prison sentences, including Full House star Lori Loughlin, her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli and Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman.

In total, nearly 60 people have been charged as part of the investigation described by the authorities as “Operation Varsity Blues”. Only two other than Vavic were tried.

Former Staples Inc. executive John Wilson was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison last month, the longest sentence to date. And Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, was sentenced to a year and a day.

Naomi C. Amerson