San Diego

Family and Former Coach Acted Inappropriately, Not USD, in Admissions Scam: Report

Five months after parents coast to coast were accused of paying millions in bribes to get their children into elite colleges, the University of San Diego said a report found the school did nothing wrong in connection with the scandal.

"We’re pleased to say that the external investigation discovered what we had discovered in our own internal investigation, and that is that one coach and one family acted inappropriately," said USD President James T. Harris in a statement Thursday.

In March, federal prosecutors charged 50 people across the country in a $25 million college admission cheating scheme. The operation was code-named Varsity Blues by investigators.

One of the parents charged was Los Angeles real estate developer Robert Flaxman, who was accused of paying $250,000 to the scheme’s ring leader, William Rick Singer, so his son and daughter could gain admission to USD.

Through an intermediary, Singer allegedly bribed former USD Men’s Basketball Coach Lamont Smith to recruit Flaxman’s son — who didn’t play basketball — and vouch for Flaxman’s daughter to be manager of the team.

Both students were accepted to the university.

Flaxman pleaded guilty to several charges earlier in the year.

But prosecutors made clear from the start, USD and the other schools in the scandal were not the targets of the investigation, and were never accused of wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, USD hired outside law firm Snell & Wilmer to conduct an independent investigation to see if other current or former USD employees knew of any aspect of the bribery scheme, or if there was any other related admission misconduct.

The investigation reviewed “potentially relevant documents” consisting mainly of emails and conducted interviews with 20 current and former USD staff members.

“Other than Former Head Coach [Lamont Smith], no current or former USD employees were knowingly involved in the alleged wrongdoing,” read the redacted six-page executive summary of the report, released by the university.

The investigation asserted there was no other related misconduct in connection with Varsity Blues.

“I’d be surprised if anyone else is implicated other than what has already happened,” said Zak Harris, a former admissions officer who works for InGenius Prep.

Harris said while there is definitely accountability to go around, this should be seen as an opportunity to improve admissions across the country.

“No college wants to be what happened already, but particularly two years down the line, five years down the line, no one wants to be 'Varsity Blues Part Two,'” said Harris.

USD’s president said the school is working to ensure this never happens again, and added the school has made changes to the application review process.

Now the process will always include two coaching staff members and two admissions staff members.

But for some, the report has not eased frustration of the larger bribery scheme.

“I have students now who have grade point averages above 4.0 who are worried about getting into college — not just the college they want — but college, period,” said Mark Walters, founder of Wise Owl Prep.

Walters feels the Varsity Blues scandal is a symptom of the college admissions system.

“It’s driven by money. This needs to be fixed,” he said.

And Walters is skeptical that much will change.

“People like me, people like you, we have only the power we have, right? And it isn’t a lot,” he said.

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