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Wall Street Journal coverage of USC development admissions.

‘Father is Surgeon,’ ‘1 mil pledge’: The Role of Money in USC Admissions
Emails in college admissions cheating scandal show the role donations played in decisions to accept students

Emails among athletics, admissions and fundraising officials at the University of Southern California show the school explicitly weighed how much money applicants’ families could donate when determining whether to admit students.

The messages were filed Tuesday in a Boston federal court by a lawyer for two parents accused in the nationwide college-admissions cheating scandal. He claims USC wasn’t a victim of any scheme, but rather based admission decisions in part on expectations of donations from well-heeled families.

There is a long-held assumption that money influences college admissions, but the 18 previously undisclosed documents, obtained during the discovery process in the case, appear to make the direct connection in stark terms.

They include intricate spreadsheets color-coded by university officials to track “special-interest applicants”—applicants flagged for their connections to USC officials, trustees, donors or other VIPs—with direct references to past and prospective dollar amounts of gifts from their families.

Also included are email exchanges about specific candidates whose qualifications were portrayed as questionable by admissions and other officials but whose family ties and bank funds won out.

“VIP” students were described in spreadsheets with references like “given 2 million already,” “1 mil pledge,” “Previously donated $25k to Heritage Hall” and “father is surgeon,” the filings show.

One email shows the access that William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind of the admissions cheating scheme, had at USC. In the email, Mr. Singer set up a 2007 meeting between the then-university president, who is now deceased, and an individual who isn’t identified. A person familiar with the matter said the individual was a wealthy parent and client of Mr. Singer’s who hasn’t been charged in the case.

The filing was made by lawyer Martin G. Weinberg as part of a dispute over whether USC should have to produce records showing whether it favored wealthy and well-connected families. Mr. Weinberg, who represents two parents who have pleaded not guilty in the admissions-cheating scheme, has argued that parents donated to USC as part of a standard admissions practice that was actively encouraged by USC.

USC said in a statement Tuesday that the school allows many departments to mark applicants with a “special-interest tag,” and that the emails disclosed in the court filing “demonstrate that no Athletic Department official has the authority to compel admissions decisions.”

The university called the court filing an effort to divert attention from the underlying fraud charges.

USC said in a separate recent court filing that its admissions office doesn’t track donations, know dollar amounts given or “focus on donations in deciding whether to admit an applicant.”

A lawyer for Mr. Singer didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Prosecutors have positioned their case on the theory that colleges are victims of the sprawling fraud and argue that the parents’ payments, some of which ended up in school coffers, weren’t donations, but rather quid pro quos arranged by parents, Mr. Singer and corrupt athletics staff members.

Mr. Singer has admitted to running a $25 million scheme in which parents allegedly gave money to his bogus charity, with the agreement Mr. Singer would then pay coaches or their athletic programs to designate his clients’ children as athletic recruits, regardless of athletic ability. In some instances, parents went so far as to help Mr. Singer fabricate athletic profiles for their teens, according to charging documents and court testimony.

Defense lawyers have been portraying Mr. Singer’s actions as essentially sanctioned by USC, where athletic officials were under pressure to raise money and courted walk-on players whose parents could make big donations.

At times, USC staffers joked about the shortcomings of applicants. In one email exchange included in Tuesday’s filing, admissions officials mocked one applicant’s grammar but agreed he was “good enough to shag balls for the tennis team,” ending with a crass “Beavis and Butt-Head” reference.

Mr. Weinberg made the filing as part of his defense of one of his clients, parent Robert Zangrillo, a Miami developer who has pleaded not guilty and is accused of paying Mr. Singer to bribe a USC official to admit his daughter as a rower.

The athletic department gave the girl a “special interest tag,” USC said in a recent court filing.

In a February 2014 email exchange, Donna Heinel, a former associate senior USC athletic director; Ron Orr, a senior associate athletic director for development; and others discussed a walk-on water polo player with whose family the school had been building a relationship for a year. They describe the family as “a high-level prospect with 1-5M potential,” though there appears to be some jockeying over how much of any gift would go to USC’s business school versus its athletics department.

Ms. Heinel told Mr. Orr, “If this is not working out the way you planned, I can have Admissions pull the approval.”

“Really sucks,” he responded later that night, adding, “don’t pull we will guilt them.”

Ms. Heinel has pleaded not guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy related to Mr. Singer’s scheme.

Ms. Heinel’s attorney Nina Marino said the documents show “USC admission was directly linked to donations” and said Ms. Heinel at all times was doing the job that was expected of her by the university.

Mr. Orr, who hasn’t been charged, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In an exchange from 2018, Ms. Heinel asked USC admissions dean Timothy Brunold to move to spring-semester admission a candidate whose family “has helped build the foundation of many USC projects and initiatives” even though her test scores are “well below the standard.” He agreed to do so, the exchange indicates.

Mr. Brunold didn’t respond to a request for comment. He said in a court declaration that most students with a “special interest tag” aren’t admitted and that the school doesn’t keep track of the exact percent.

“If I had known that a prospective student’s family had donated $50,000 or $100,000 to USC, it would not have affected the Admission Department’s decision whether to admit the student,” Mr. Brunold said in the filing.

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