Donna Heinel, a former athletics officer at the University of Southern California, pleaded guilty to a college bribery scandal on Friday, admitting she helped students get into school by posing as elite athletes.
At a remote hearing on Friday, federal prosecutors in Boston told US District Judge Indira Talwani that they would seek a prison sentence of three to four years. According to court records, as part of the plea deal she made with prosecutors, Heinel will forfeit nearly $ 300,000 from the admission scam.
Heinel’s decision to plead guilty to fraud and to drop the trial marks a significant victory for the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts, which turned the elite ranks of higher education in 2019 when it launched a massive investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues. Dozens of wealthy parents, university coaches, and others have been accused of allegedly working with the acclaimed mastermind of the scheme, William “Rick” Singer, to smuggle unworthy children to USC and other leading schools.
Of the 57 accused, Heinel was one of the few who insisted on his innocence. Prosecutors have portrayed 60-year-old Heinel as playing a pivotal role in Singer’s operation. As a liaison between the University of Southern California’s admissions office and the school’s vaunted athletics department, she was accused of misleading the admissions offices of Singer’s clients’ children into the top-tier athletes the school’s coaches wanted on their teams.
In one example, cited in the indictment against Heinel et al, in 2015, she asked other fraudsters to take a “sportier” photo of a boy, which she used to convince admissions officers that the teenager was a soccer player, even though he didn’t play. sports. In another case, Heinel changed the height of a student on paperwork to appear taller, a prosecutor said Friday.
Among the many students Heinel accused of pushing through the admissions process was the daughter of actress Lori Laughlin and designer Mossimo Giannulli. In the case, prosecutors argued that in 2016, Heinel introduced the girl to the University of Southern California’s admissions office as a talented helmsman hired by a school rowing coach, which was untrue. According to the prosecutor’s office, the girl was admitted “on the basis of forged certificates”.
Laughlin and Giannulli pleaded guilty and served time in prison. Singer, who has pleaded guilty to several serious crimes and collaborated with investigators, is awaiting sentencing.
In exchange, Heinel, a senior assistant sports director who was the only senior USC official charged in the case, was charged with receiving over $ 1.3 million in payments. She was fired in March 2019.
In a remote hearing on Friday, Heinel was initially reluctant to admit her role in the scam Talwani interrogated about.
Talwani asked Heinel if the student files she presented to the admissions committee had been fabricated to make it appear as if USC coaches were recruiting children of Singer’s clients into their teams.
“She uses these profiles and information … and makes these athletes look their best,” said Nina Marino, attorney for Heinel. “It seems that the coaches are saying, ‘These are the athletes we want in the team.’
Heinel hesitated when Talwani asked her if Marino’s description was correct.
“I added information to these profiles to convert them to a format that is a standardized type of template format that we have presented,” Heinel said. “When I received this information and found it to be fake information, I…. “
Marino interrupted her client, and after a short break, Heinel returned to the conversation and simply confirmed that her lawyer’s description was accurate.
Before accepting Heinel’s request, Talwani also asked prosecutors to explain how Heinel personally won, as his parents usually made payments to a bank account run by the Athletics Department of the University of Southern California. The prosecutor’s office argued that Heinel got professional benefits from the payments because she could decide how to distribute money in the account.
“This is a source of funds that she can use for her own office to develop her career and advancement at USC,” said US aide Atti. Criss Basil.
Basil spoke about the telephone conversation between Singer and Heinel, which federal agents recorded as part of their investigation. In it, Heinel and Singer discussed payments of $ 50,000 that Singer’s clients would have to pay to USC. After the call, Heinel sent Singer an invoice and at least one payment was sent to the consulting company Heinel, Basil said in court.
Until recently, Marino was still actively fighting a lawsuit against Heinel. In August, she unsuccessfully sought to drop several charges against Heinel, claiming prosecutors added them as part of a planned plan to punish Heinel for refusing to plead guilty.
A plea was made less than a month before her case went to trial. If she were found guilty, she would face many years in prison. Her sentence is set for March next year.