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Dad accused in college admissions scandal hits USC with subpoena to get records

Matthew Ormseth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- In a new twist to the college admissions scandal, a father accused of resorting to fraud and bribery to get his daughter into the University of Southern California has subpoenaed the university for records detailing its admissions process and to what degree, if any, it is influenced by donations.

The subpoena is an early indication that parents charged in the college admissions scam intend to take aim at a sensitive -- and to this point secretive -- calculation: how presumably meritocratic decisions on whom to admit or reject can be weighted by an applicant's wealth.

USC has asked a judge to quash the subpoena, saying the demand from Robert Zangrillo, a Miami financier whose daughter was admitted to USC in 2018, amounted to "an impermissible fishing expedition."

The university's retort, which includes an affidavit from its dean of admissions, sheds light on the private school's opaque and increasingly selective admissions process and, in particular, its practice of flagging certain applicants as "special interest."

Zangrillo's subpoena, which USC received July 11, requests records related to how the university flags some applicants as "VIP" or "special interest," records of the university president's involvement in such designations, a database of donors and the percentage of applicants admitted within a year of their families donating $50,000 or more, among other records. The subpoena was filed under seal, but USC included a copy of the document in its request to have it thrown out.

To ensure his daughter, Amber, was admitted to USC, prosecutors say Zangrillo paid $200,000 to William "Rick" Singer, a Newport Beach college admissions consultant, and $50,000 to an account controlled by a USC administrator. Zangrillo has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.

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Singer is the admitted linchpin of a sprawling, nearly decadelong scheme to fix college entrance exams for the children of his wealthy clients and misrepresent them to universities as recruited athletes. He pleaded guilty to four felonies in March and cooperated with federal prosecutors in Massachusetts who uncovered his scam.

Donna Heinel, the USC administrator who is accused of steering Zangrillo's daughter into the school, has been charged with racketeering conspiracy and fired from her post as the third-ranking official in USC's athletics department. She has pleaded not guilty.

While his scheme breached 10 universities, Singer sneaked more of his clients' children into USC than any other school. Of the 34 parents charged by the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts with fraud and money laundering crimes, 19 have children who attended or are still enrolled at USC. Thirty-three students at the school are under scrutiny for having ties to Singer. In addition to Heinel, three USC coaches have been charged with racketeering conspiracy.

Debra Wong Yang, a former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles whom USC previously retained to investigate the conduct of its disgraced medical school dean, argued in a motion filed Thursday in Massachusetts federal court that the records Zangrillo is seeking aren't relevant to the circumstances of his daughter's admission. Nor, Yang said, are they relevant to Zangrillo's state of mind during his daughter's college admissions process, when he is accused of paying Singer to falsify her application and grades.

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