Two more wealthy parents – an owner of wine vineyards in Napa Valley, California, and a high-powered attorney from New York – pleaded guilty Tuesday in the nation’s college admissions bribery scandal.
Gordon Caplan, a former partner at a major international law firm, and Agustin Huneeus Jr., who recently stepped aside from running his family’s vineyard empire, admitted in federal court in Boston to paying bribes to Rick Singer, the mastermind of a nationwide college admissions conspiracy.
In separate deals with federal prosecutors, both men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest service mail fraud. They were appearing before U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani, who accepted their plea agreements.
Caplan and Huneeus, both 53 years old, are the 12th and 13th defendants to plead guilty in the Justice Department’s sweeping “Varsity Blues” case out of 50 people charged. They’re the sixth and seventh parents to do so. Seven additional parents have agreed to plead guilty and await their court hearings.
Caplan, a resident of Greenwich, Connecticut, and New York, admitted to making a $75,000 contribution in December 2018 to Singer’s nonprofit The Key Worldwide Foundation in exchange for Mark Riddell, a private school counselor from Florida, flying to California to act as the test proctor and correct answers on his daughter’s ACT exam. His daughter received a score of 32 out of 36 on the ACT.
“I don’t dispute any of those facts but want to emphasize my daughter had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Caplan told the judge.
Leaving the courthouse, he said he’s “deeply ashamed and terribly sorry,” reiterating that his daughter knew nothing and that she hasn’t even applied to college yet. He declined to take questions from reporters.
“I’m also sorry to all the other kids out there who are in the college admissions process and their parents who are helping them and supporting them,” Caplan said. “I am truly sorry.”
Huneeus, of San Francisco, hails from a famous wine family led by his father Agustin Huneeus Sr., who has five decades of experience in wine-making. The family’s company Huneeus Vinters has wineries in both California and Chile and produces Quintessa, a well-known Napa wine.
Huneeus admitted to paying $50,000 to Singer’s organization in 2018 to engineer an SAT cheating scheme involving Riddell and later agreeing to pay $250,000 to have his daughter classified as a water polo recruit at the University of Southern California to get her accepted. He made an initial payment of $50,000 toward the recruitment plot but was arrested before he could pay the remaining $200,000.
In a written statement after the hearing, Huneeus said he takes “full responsibility for my wrongful actions” and apologizes to “students who work hard to get into college on their own merit” as well as to their families. He called his guilty plea an “important step” in his effort to take responsibility and accept the consequences of his regrettable actions.
“My life has been devoted to my family and the people I have worked with and for,” he said. “I have disappointed them all and brought shame on myself and the people I love. While I wish I could go back and make different and better choices, of course I cannot. What I can do now is to say: I am sorry and I apologize.”
Both men face a maximum of up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors have recommended the low end of sentence guidelines in exchange for their guilty pleas:
Prosecutors have recommended that Caplan serve between eight and 14 months in prison, pay a $40,000 fine and serve 12 months of supervised release.
Prosecutors have recommended Huneeus serve 15 months in prison, pay a $95,000 penalty and also have 12 months of supervision after his release.
Caplan’s sentencing hearing is Oct. 3 and Huneeus’s is Oct. 4.
Both defendants, standing before the judge, calmly said, “I do” when asked whether they understood the ramifications of their guilty plea, including that they are waiving their right to a trial and ability to appeal their convictions.
Joshua Levy, Caplan’s attorney, told the judge that prosecutors in negotiations said they have no intention to prosecute Caplan’s wife but that it was not promised in their deal. Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright said, “that remains the case today.”
Wright went over the government’s evidence against the defendants gathered from phone calls, emails and testimony from witnesses. Caplan, who in April was let go as co-chairman of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, started talking to Singer after Singer had began cooperating with the Justice Department.
Singer described his plot with Caplan in a June 15, 2018 phone conversation that was wiretapped by law enforcement.
Caplan: “Look, I’m particularly interested in working with you guys and figuring out what’s best for [my daughter]. She’s an interesting kid. I’m sure you’ve seen them all. But this notion of effectively going in, flying out to L.A., sitting with your proctor, and taking the exam is pretty interesting.
Singer: “It’s the home run of home runs.”
Caplan: “And it works?
Singer: “Every time.” (laughing)
Gordon Caplan, a high-powered New York attorney, apologized and reiterated his daughter had no knowledge of the ACT cheating scheme after pleading guilty just now in the college admissions conspiracy scheme in federal court. pic.twitter.com/CC4OI85jKb
— Joey Garrison (@joeygarrison) May 21, 2019
Caplan and his daughter flew to Los Angeles on July 21, 2018 to receive medical documentation from a pyschiatrist for her to receive extended time on the ACT. It was later granted.
During multiple phone conversations, Caplan sought reassurances that he wouldn’t get in trouble. Singer downplayed the risk.
Caplan’s daughter returned to Los Angeles on Dec. 8. Law enforcement agents observed Caplan’s daughter, Riddell and Igor Dvorskiy, an ACT test administrator allegedly involved in the scheme, enter the West Hollywood Test Center with each other. Caplain wired an additional $50,000 to Singer’s nonprofit on Dec. 20 after paying a $25,000 deposit the previous month.
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Huneeus’s daughter also received extended time to take the SAT, according to prosecutors, and went to the same West Hollywood testing center to take the exam in March 2018. Riddell, the test-taker who has pleaded to charges, told prosecutors that he assisted Huneeus’s daughter to answer questions on the exam and corrected answers after she completed it.
Huneeus wired $50,000 to Singer’s organization in April 2018, according to a criminal complaint. His daughter scored a 1380 on the SAT out of 1600. Huneeus later complained about the score to Singer in an Aug. 30, 2018 phone conversation that was wiretapped. Singer responded that a higher score would have raised suspicion.
During that same call, Singer explained the recruiting bribery scheme to Huneeus, who prosecutors say participated in it later that year.
In September, 2018, prosecutors say that Huneeus helped create a fabricated water polo profile of his daughter that included a photo of another individual playing water polo. The profile falsely identified his daughter as a “3-year Varsity Letter winner” and “Team MVP 2017.”
She was accepted as a college recruit at USC in November 7, 2018, after Donna Heinel, a former USC athletics administrators, presented her application.
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Huneeus on Nov. 19, 2018 sent an initial $50,000 check to Heinel, payable to “USC Women’s Athletics Board,” with the memo line referencing his daughter. Heinel has pleaded not guilty to charges. Prosecutors say that water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who has also pleaded not guilty, also received bribe money for opening a roster slot for Huneeus’s daughter.
Amid the college admissions scandal, the Huneeus Jr. agreed to relinquish his chief executive position of the company back to his father.
Image: Agustin Huneeus, center, arrives at federal court Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Boston, where he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.