Former U.S.C. Official Sentenced to Six Months for Role in College Admissions Scandal

Donna Heinel, a former administrator and gatekeeper for athletic recruits at the University of Southern California, was sentenced Friday to six months in prison for her central role in the sweeping college admissions scandal, pushing through phony athletic recruits whose families could afford to make large gifts to the university.

Over four years, she received more than $1 million in payments to U.S.C. athletic funds that she oversaw, and $160,000, out of a promised $400,000, to her as so-called consulting fees, according to prosecutors.

At the hearing in federal court in Boston, Judge Indira Talwani said she was taking into account that Dr. Heinel was “a well-respected person at U.S.C.” who “did a lot of good,” and that she had responsibility for two young children. Prosecutors had recommended that Dr. Heinel be sentenced to 24 months.

In addition to the six months in prison, Judge Talwani sentenced Dr. Heinel to two years of supervised release, and $160,000 in forfeiture. Dr. Heinel had pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud.

Dr. Heinel apologized to her colleagues at U.S.C., her voice cracking and her cheeks reddening. “I beat myself up on the inside all the time,” she said. “I disgust myself.”

Key Figures in “Operation Varsity Blues”

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More than 50 people charged. In 2019, a federal investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues snared dozens of parents, coaches and exam administrators in a vast college admissions scheme that implicated athletic programs at the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford and other schools.

The linchpin. William Singer, a college counselor and the mastermind of the scheme, led an elaborate effort to bribe coaches and test monitors, falsify exam scores and fabricate student biographies. He pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government. On Jan. 4, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

The parents. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among the more than three dozen parents — many of them wealthy and powerful — charged in the case. A private equity financier and a former casino executive, who were found guilty on Oct. 8, 2021, were the first to stand trial.

The coaches. The case also involved athletic coaches from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Jovan Vavic, the former water polo coach at U.S.C., was found guilty of taking more than $200,000 in bribes in exchange for designating high school applicants as recruits. He was later granted a new trial. Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who was among the first to take a plea deal, has written a book detailing how he was duped by Mr. Singer.

But she also was defensive, saying, “It was just so much pressure to raise money at my institution.”

The charges against Dr. Heinel arose from Operation Varsity Blues, a federal investigation that exposed a corrupt college consultant, William Singer, working with wealthy parents who paid him tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to get their children into some of the most competitive colleges in the country. Dozens of parents, coaches and testing officials have been convicted in the scheme. Mr. Singer, known as Rick, cooperated with the investigation, and was sentenced on Wednesday to three and a half years in prison.

Prosecutors said that Dr. Heinel, a senior athletic department administrator, enriched herself and abused her position as liaison between U.S.C.’s athletic coaches and the subcommittee on athletic admissions. They said that in exchange for bribes from Mr. Singer, she misled the committee into approving the admission of about two dozen applicants as athletic recruits based on phony athletic profiles.

“Heinel made these applicants appear to be legitimate recruits — that is, high-caliber players who had been selected by U.S.C.’s athletic coaches,” the government’s sentencing memorandum said.

In reality, the coaches had not recruited them and some did not even play the sport they were recruited to play, prosecutors said.

The bogus recruits included a football player whose high school had no football team, a five-foot-five men’s basketball player and a high school cheerleader presented as a lacrosse star.

At one point, U.S.C. admissions officials contacted Dr. Heinel about several students whose high school counselors were surprised to hear they were being admitted as recruited athletes, according to prosecutors. Dr. Heinel called Mr. Singer and warned that the parents had to be stopped from arguing with the counselors, or they would “shut everything down.”

Prosecutors also obtained spreadsheets kept by Dr. Heinel that flagged potential athletic recruits.They included comments like “long time donors” and “previously donated $25K to Heritage Hall.”

Dr. Heinel was the only administrator charged. She was accused of working with the water polo coach, Jovan Vavic; the former soccer coach, Ali Khosroshahin, who was fired in 2013; and his former assistant, Laura Janke, who fabricated athletic profiles.

U.S.C. fired Dr. Heinel in 2019, after the investigation became public. She pleaded guilty in November 2021, less than two weeks before she was scheduled to go to trial.

In her sentencing memo, Dr. Heinel’s lawyers noted that she had been the highest ranking woman in the athletics department and said that while she appeared strong, she had a “fragile and insecure inner being.” They said that she had fallen prey to “the pressures put upon her by a dysfunctional university” and by “the powerful men who inhabited her orbit.”

Dr. Heinel’s lawyers also said she had trusted Mr. Singer and did not know that the athletic profiles he provided were fraudulent, though she did “embellish” some on her own.

The memo also raised the issue of the blurry line between college fund-raising and admissions.

“The athletic department at U.S.C. has long used walk-on spots to fund-raise,” the memo said, adding that “the higher ranking administrators of the athletic department and the larger university advancement office accepted and embraced this underbelly as business as usual.”

Kevin G. Andrade contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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