New USC Emails Reveal Ties Between Admissions, Athletics Fundraising

BOSTON — A new batch of emails filed in a Varsity Blues college-admissions fraud trial reveal that University of Southern California officials brazenly spoke of some families’ wealth and ability to donate while discussing applicants.

More than a dozen internal USC emails from 2013 to 2018 among top athletic-department officials and fundraisers portray staffers at times fixated on prospects’ bank accounts. A staffer added dollar signs in reference to a family in one email, and noted in another that a family needed to “pay up” before further favors would be granted.

The filing was made Tuesday by attorneys for former USC water-polo coach Jovan Vavic, who is on trial for allegedly taking bribes to tag applicants as recruited athletes as part of a sprawling scam.

Jovan Vavic, the former USC water-polo coach, is charged in the sprawling college-admissions fraud case.


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Scott Eisen / Getty Images

In the emails, athletic-department administrators and staffers who raise money for USC speak openly about prime donor prospects and how to close deals. The correspondence includes former athletic director Pat Haden, former senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, and USC fundraisers Scott Wandzilak and Alexandra Reisman, who at the time had the last name Bitterlin. Ms. Heinel has pleaded guilty for her role di lei in the scandal; the others haven’t been accused of any wrongdoing.

“Will be at least a $ 1 million ask if we get her in,” Ms. Reisman wrote in 2013 to Ms. Heinel regarding one applicant’s family.

The grandfather founded a beer company, Ms. Reisman noted, adding, “They’re like the Anheuser Busch family $$$$.”

Mr. Vavic was among 57 people charged in connection with the case, which was first unveiled in 2019. Fifty have pleaded guilty, including two other USC coaches and a former athletic department administrator there. Being flagged as a recruited athlete allows candidates to go through a separate admission process, which all but guarantees an acceptance offer at some schools.

According to prosecutors, the admitted ringmaster of the scheme, college counselor William “Rick” Singer, made payments to a USC account that funded Mr. Vavic’s team and paid private-school tuition for the coach’s children as part of the scam.

Mr. Vavic’s lawyers say their client was engaged in legitimate recruitment and routine fundraising at a school that aggressively courted wealthy families. Lawyers for some employees at USC are resisting subpoenas that would require them to testify at trial.

The government and USC have portrayed such filings as a red herring meant to distract from the charges that defendants like Mr. Vavic fraudulently packaged prospective students as athletes, using fabricated accolades.

In a September trial for two parents — who were both convicted of paying bribes to get their children into USC — Assistant US Attorney Leslie Wright said “this case is not about wealthy people donating money to universities with the hope that their children get preferential treatment… if that was all they had done, we would not be here today. “

In a court filing Wednesday, a lawyer representing Ms. Reisman and Mr. Wandzilak said they “had nothing to do with Admissions,” and that the fundraising efforts mentioned in the emails “was perfectly appropriate.”

The lawyer, Glenn MacKinlay, wrote that Ms. Reisman used a “poor choice of words” but “unequivocally denies that she ever solicited donations to USC for admission,” and that Mr. Wandzilak also denies working to help facilitate admissions for applicants with wealthy families.

Ms. Reisman is now an associate athletic director at USC, while Mr. Wandzilak is a senior assistant athletic director; both are in fundraising roles.

In an emailed statement, USC said Wednesday its admissions office had been deceived by Mr. Vavic, and that it fired him the day he was indicted. “USC and our admissions processes are not on trial,” the school said.

‘They’re like the Anheuser Busch family $$$$’


– Email written by a USC fundraiser, referring to an applicant’s family

In a 2016 email to Ms. Heinel, Ms. Reisman complained that the family of an admitted student potentially “was going to screw us on a gift.” “We shouldn’t get the student a job until we get a gift first,” she wrote, referring to a role the teen wanted with the football team.

“You’ve done enough to get her in — they need to pay up,” Ms. Reisman wrote.

The exhibits echo previous emails, disclosed in a 2019 court filing by a defense lawyer representing two parents in the case, that showed athletics, admissions and fundraising officials weighing applicants’ wealth in the admissions process. “VIP” students were described in spreadsheets with references such as “father is a surgeon” and “given 2 million already.”

In one email from 2014 unveiled Tuesday, Ms. Reisman reminded Mr. Haden that he had been introduced to a wealthy father via the headmaster of an exclusive Los Angeles private school, and that a message came from the headmaster “saying if the kid got in [the parent] would support USC with $ 2M. “

Mr. Haden, a former USC and NFL quarterback who served as USC’s athletic director from 2010 to 2016 and stayed on in a fundraising role until 2017, told Ms. Reisman in connection with another student who had been admitted as a walk-on for USC’s track and field program, “Are they really thinking of a gift? … If they truly are, I can speak to the coach.”

In a statement Wednesday, Brandon Fox, Mr. Haden’s attorney, said his client has cooperated with the investigation.

“The government repeatedly has assured us that at no time was Mr. Haden implicated in any way,” Mr. Fox said. “As with every athletic director in the country, part of Mr. Haden’s job was to raise funds for the university. At no point did Mr. Haden condition any student’s participation on a team to a donation. ”

Unknown is how much the federal judge overseeing Mr. Vavic’s case will allow defense lawyers to focus on USC.

Employees also seemed to go to extra lengths to get certain applicants in.

In another email, in 2016, Ms. Heinel wrote to Mr. Wandzilak about an applicant whose file “leads me to believe she will be denied,” and asked if the applicant “was someone that has capacity for you.”

“Yes, her family has capacity,” Mr. Wandzilak replied. He noted where the family lived, that her father di lei was successful and that they were referred by someone else with ties to the school.

“I need a better resume,” Ms. Heinel replied, referencing the girl’s application package.

Write to Jennifer Levitz at jennifer.levitz@wsj.com and Melissa Korn at melissa.korn@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
Lawyers for some employees at USC are resisting subpoenas that would require them to testify at trial. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said USC was resisting the subpoenas that would require some employees to testify. (Corrected on March 9, 2022.)

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