Bribe or donation? Parent’s defense questions the difference

Aug 11, 2019 by

BOSTON (AP) — Robert Zangrillo is accused of paying $250,000 to get his daughter into college as a fake athlete. Prosecutors call it a bribe. But his lawyers say Zangrillo isn’t much different from parents who make formal donations to try to give their children an advantage in the admissions process.

Zangrillo’s lawyers offered a glimpse into their defense plans in a recently unsealed court filing that seeks a trove of admissions records from the University of Southern California, where Zangrillo’s daughter was admitted as a transfer student last year. Zangrillo, a prominent Miami developer and investor, is among 19 parents fighting charges tied to a sweeping admissions bribery scheme at elite U.S. colleges.

In the June 21 filing, Zangrillo’s lawyers requested USC records showing the number of prospective students who received special consideration from the school between 2015 and 2019, along with the amount of any donations from their families within a year of admission, among other related records.

Zangrillo’s lawyers told a federal judge the records are relevant because they contain information about “other similarly situated students applying for admission in close proximity to a financial donation from a parent.” A federal judge in Boston granted the subpoena request July 10. It was unsealed July 25, but large portions remain heavily redacted.

The subpoena aims to prove that parents often use their wealth to get their children admitted, and that USC officials are aware. If there’s evidence supporting that idea, it could bolster a defense that argues USC wasn’t a victim of fraud in Zangrillo’s case.

The University of Southern California says it plans to challenge the subpoena over student privacy concerns, arguing that the records contain confidential information about people “unrelated” to the admissions scheme. A statement from the school says it is “common practice at private universities, including at USC, for alumni, friends and donors to recommend prospective students.”

The legal strategy taps into a reignited debate about the role wealth can play in influencing admissions. Amid public outrage over the bribery scheme, some critics have said it’s equally unfair that schools give preference to the children of donors and alumni.

Colleges are generally permitted to consider donations as a factor in admissions decisions, but little is known about how widespread the practice is. While a recent lawsuit against Harvard University revealed that school fundraisers sometimes weigh in on applicants with ties to donors, most universities carefully guard the inner workings of their admissions offices.

Still, some legal experts say there’s no comparison between formal donations and the alleged bribes. Even if the USC records reveal that scores of students are admitted with the help of donations, it wouldn’t excuse families who lied or faked documents to get in, said Stephen Sugarman, a law professor who has taught education policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“What they caught these people doing is very different,” Sugarman said. “They were part of a conspiracy to give fraudulent information to get the kid in.”

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