Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer will be sentenced in federal court in Boston on Wednesday for his connection to the college admissions scandal. In what will be the first sentence handed down in connection with the scam, prosecutors are calling for a “meaningful” sentence of 13 months in prison to rebuild faith in what they call a “rigged” system.
Vandemoer has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy for agreeing to take $610,000 in bribes from wealthy parents as quid pro quo for getting their kids into the elite school.
Coaches like Vandemoer were the key to the so-called side-door that many students around the nation illicitly slipped through to get into elite colleges. Coaches on the take would use their special slots meant for star recruits and instead sell them to the highest bidders. Often that meant admitting students purporting to be champion athletes in sports they never even actually played; photos were doctored to make them look like competitors.
In Vandemoer’s case, he has admitted to agreeing to designate two students as recruits in exchange for sums of $110,000 and $500,000. (Prosecutors allege Vandemoer also took an earlier payment of $500,000 for a third student’s admission, even though a timing snafu ultimately foiled that plan.)
Vandemoer “not only deceived and defrauded” Stanford, prosecutors write in their sentencing memorandum, “but also validated a national cynicism over college admissions by helping wealthy and unscrupulous applicants enjoy an unjust advantage over those who lack deep pockets or are simply unwilling to cheat to get ahead.”
“You will never be able to truly calculate the harm done when people learn that it’s a rigged game,” says Patrick Cotter, former federal prosecutor and now defense attorney with Greensfelder in Chicago. “That’s a terrible crime on society. We’ll never know how many kids gave up trying to get into good schools saying to themselves ‘I’m not going to make the effort because some rich kid is just going to buy his way in ahead of me. So why bother?’ ”
Vandemoer’s lawyers, however, are seeking leniency, asking the judge for no time behind bars at all. They are seeking probation for the 41-year-old father of a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. In their sentencing memorandum, defense attorneys describe Vandemoer as “fundamentally a decent family man” who “dearly regrets” his “terrible mistake” and has “worked hard to make amends.” They also argue he’s “perhaps the least culpable” of all 50 defendants in this case, since he never pocketed any money for himself; it all went to the sailing team to pay for uniforms, equipment and an assistant coach.
“Vandemoer’s intent, while misguided, was to help the sailing program he loved,” his lawyers write. And besides, they add, no student ever actually got into Stanford because of Vandemoer. Two students opted to go elsewhere and the third student, who was too late to be recruited, applied and got in through the normal process, but was kicked out this year, after Stanford learned that her resume contained false information.
Vandemoer’s lawyers have also sent the judge some 30 letters from family, friends and supporters, including former students and colleagues, extolling Vandemoer’s character.
“Honesty and integrity were more important [to Vandemoer] than victory,” wrote one parent.
“He’s known as a straight shooter; one who adheres to the rules closely,” said an attorney who has worked with Vandemoer in community sailing.
But former prosecutor Cotter says he doesn’t think Vandemoer is likely to get off with probation only.
Defense attorneys are “sailing into a headwind,” he says. “You know, if it was put up to a vote the public would probably send all these people to jail for 20 years.”
Indeed, many across the nation have been outraged as prosecutors revealed the brazen scam that also involved cheating on students’ SAT and ACT entrance exams. The government has amassed a mountain of damning evidence, including emails, wiretapped phone conversations and financial records, implicating coaches, parents, middlemen, test proctors and test takers. The mastermind, Rick Singer, has pleaded guilty to three counts of racketeering conspiracy and one count of obstruction of justice for taking some $25 million in fake donations. That could mean 65 years in prison. But Singer is hoping his sentence will be much lighter because he has been cooperating with the government to build cases against others.
More than a dozen parents have already pleaded guilty, including actress Felicity Huffman, who expressed “deep regret and shame.”
Another, New York attorney Gordon Caplan, choked up publicly, when he said he was “really sorry to my daughter who I love more than anything in the world, who knew nothing about this” and also to “all the other kids who are in the college admissions process and to all the parents who are helping them and supporting them.”
But nearly 20 parents, including actress Lori Loughlin, have dug in their heels and are fighting the charges. Attorney Martin Weinberg represents two defendants who have pleaded not guilty and say they’re looking forward to a trial to prove they did nothing wrong.
“Donations that are made on an everyday basis by parents of students to universities, we contend were not bribes, but were instead donations,” Weinberg says.
Meanwhile, Stanford says it wants nothing to do with that money, no matter what anyone calls it. The school says it considers the money tainted and is planning to redirect it “for the public good.” The school did not weigh in on how much time Vandemoer deserves when he’s sentenced.