Former Stanford Coach Will Not Serve Prison Time For Admissions Scandal

20 hours ago
Originally published on June 12, 2019 10:18 pm

Updated at 10:15 p.m. ET

Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer will not face prison time after pleading guilty to accepting bribes as part of a sweeping college admissions scandal that grabbed national headlines and shocked the U.S. higher education system.

At a federal court in Boston on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel sentenced Vandemoer to one day in prison, which is deemed served. He was also sentenced to two years of supervised release, with the first six months in home confinement, and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

In March, Vandemoer pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering conspiracy.

This is the first sentence handed down in connection with the scam. Prosecutors had asked for a "meaningful" sentence of 13 months in prison and one year of supervised release to rebuild faith in what they call a "rigged" system.

Vandemoer's lawyers argued that he should be sentenced to probation. "There is simply no way incarceration is necessary to deter Mr. Vandemoer from ever doing this, or anything like this, again," they wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Vandemoer has admitted that he agreed to take payments to the sailing program of $110,000 and $500,000 in exchange for securing admission for two students. (In an earlier instance, prosecutors say, Vandemoer accepted $500,000 to designate another student as a recruit, but that never happened because of a timing snafu.)

Coaches like Vandemoer were the key to the so-called side door that many students across the nation illicitly slipped through to get into elite colleges. Coaches on the take would use special slots meant for star recruits and instead sell them. Often, that meant admitting students purporting to be champion athletes in sports they never actually played; in some cases, photos were staged or doctored to make the students look like competitors.

Vandemoer "not only deceived and defrauded" Stanford, prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum, "but also validated a national cynicism over college admissions by helping wealthy and unscrupulous applicants enjoy an unjust advantage over those who lack deep pockets or are simply unwilling to cheat to get ahead."

"You will never be able to truly calculate the harm done when people learn that it's a rigged game," said attorney Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who is not involved in the case. "That's a terrible crime on society. We'll never know how many kids gave up trying to get into good schools saying to themselves: 'I'm not going to make the effort because some rich kid is just going to buy his way in ahead of me. So why bother?' "

"You know if it was put up to a vote, the public would probably send all these people to jail for 20 years," Cotter added.

You will never be able to truly calculate the harm done when people learn that it's a rigged game. - Patrick Cotter

Vandemoer's lawyers, however, sought leniency for the 41-year-old father of a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. In their sentencing memorandum, defense attorneys described Vandemoer as "fundamentally a decent family man" who "dearly regrets" his "terrible mistake" and has "worked hard to make amends." They also argue he's "perhaps the least culpable" of all 50 defendants engulfed in this scandal because he never pocketed any money for himself — it all went to the sailing team to pay for uniforms, equipment and an assistant coach.

"Vandemoer's intent, while misguided, was to help the sailing program he loved," his lawyers wrote. And besides, they added, no student ever actually got into Stanford because of Vandemoer. Two students opted to go elsewhere, and the third student, who was too late to be recruited, applied and got in through the normal process, but was kicked out this year after Stanford learned that her résumé contained false information.

Vandemoer's lawyers also sent the judge some 30 letters from family, friends and supporters, including former students and colleagues, extolling Vandemoer's character.

"Honesty and integrity were more important [to Vandemoer] than victory," wrote one parent.

"He's known as a straight shooter; one who adheres to the rules closely," said an attorney who has worked with Vandemoer in community sailing.

But many across the nation have been outraged as prosecutors revealed the brazen scam that also involved cheating on students' SAT and ACT entrance exams. The government has amassed a mountain of damning evidence, including emails, wiretapped phone conversations and financial records that implicates coaches, parents, middlemen, test proctors and test takers.

The mastermind, Rick Singer, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. That could mean 65 years in prison. But Singer is hoping his sentence will be much lighter because he has been cooperating with the government to build cases against others.

More than a dozen parents have already pleaded guilty, including actress Felicity Huffman, who expressed "deep regret and shame."

Another, New York attorney Gordon Caplan, choked up publicly when he said he was "really sorry to my daughter who I love more than anything in the world, who knew nothing about this" and also to "all the other kids who are in the college admissions process and to all the parents who are helping them and supporting them."

But nearly 20 parents, including actress Lori Loughlin, are fighting the charges. Attorney Martin Weinberg represents two defendants who have pleaded not guilty and says they're looking forward to a trial to prove they did nothing wrong.

"Donations that are made on an everyday basis by parents of students to universities, we contend, were not bribes but were instead donations," Weinberg said.

Meanwhile, Stanford said it wants nothing to do with the money Vandemoer brought in because of the scheme, no matter what anyone calls it. The school said it considers the money tainted and is planning to redirect it "for the public good." The school did not weigh in on Vandemoer's sentencing.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Today we'll see the first sentencing in the college admissions scandal. A former sailing coach at Stanford admits he took money from wealthy parents who were hoping to get their kids into Stanford. Prosecutors want a prison sentence that is long enough to help restore faith in what they call a rigged system. But the coach is arguing for zero time behind bars. NPR's Tovia Smith has that story.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Coaches like John Vandemoer were the key to the so-called side door that so many students nationwide slipped through. Coaches on the take would use special slots meant for star athletic recruits and sell them to the highest bidders. Often, students weren't even athletes. Doctored photos just made them appear to be. In Vandemoer's case, he's pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy for agreeing to $610,000 in quid pro quos. Prosecutors say he not only defrauded Stanford but also, quote, "validated a national cynicism over college admissions."

PATRICK COTTER: Yeah. You'll never be able to truly calculate the harm done when people learn that, you know what? It's a rigged game. That's a terrible crime on society.

SMITH: That's former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter.

COTTER: We'll never know how many kids gave up trying to get into good schools, saying to themselves, I'm not going to make the effort because some rich kid's just going to buy his way in ahead of me. So why bother?

SMITH: But Vandemoer's lawyers are seeking leniency, saying he's the least culpable of all defendants since he never pocketed any money for himself. It all went to the sailing team. Vandemoer's intent, while misguided, defense attorneys say, was just to help the sailing program he loved. Besides, they add, for various reasons, no student ever actually got into Stanford because of Vandemoer. He dearly regrets his terrible mistake, lawyers say. And they sent the judge some 30 letters from supporters extolling Vandemoer's honesty and integrity, hoping he gets only probation. Attorney Cotter says that's unlikely.

COTTER: There's a lot of work here for the attorneys to do. You know, they're sailing into a headwind. You know, if it was put up to a vote, (laughter) the public would probably send all these people to jail for 20 years.

SMITH: Indeed, prosecutors have a mountain of damning evidence against coaches and parents, plus test proctors and test-takers who fraudulently boosted kids' SAT and ACT scores, all under the direction of the mastermind, Rick Singer. He's pleaded guilty to four counts of racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice, which could mean 65 years in prison. But he's hoping his sentence will be cut because he's cooperating with the government to help build cases against others, including parents who used to be his clients. Many have already pleaded guilty, including actress Felicity Huffman and New York attorney Gordon Caplan, who've each expressed deep regret and shame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORDON CAPLAN: I'm really sorry to my daughter, who I love more than anything in the world, knew nothing about this.

SMITH: But other parents, including actress Lori Loughlin, have dug in their heels. Attorney Martin Weinberg represents two different parents who've pleaded not guilty.

MARTIN WEINBERG: Donations that are made on an everyday basis by parents of students to universities, you know, we contend were not bribes but were instead donations.

SMITH: Meantime, Stanford says it wants nothing to do with that money, no matter what you call it. Stanford considers it tainted, and it says it's redirecting it for the public good. The school did not weigh in on how much time Vandemoer deserves when he's sentenced later today.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.