(AP) — A procession of wealthy parents, from a Napa Valley vineyard owner to a Hot Pockets heiress, are appearing in court Friday to hear charges that they paid bribes to get their children into top colleges.
The 15 parents, including CEOs, investment executives, real estate developers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, are slated to appear in Boston federal court on charges related to the nationwide college admissions cheating scheme dubbed Operation Varsity Blues.
Former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz was the first to appear before Magistrate Judge Page Kelley.
Abdelaziz, the former president of Wynn Macau, who has also held leadership roles at Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts, didn’t make a statement in court, like most defendants. But his lawyer told the judge his client intends to fight the charges.
“This is not a strong case,” Brian Kelly said as he requested permission for Abdelaziz to travel to Mexico on business next month.
“This is a one-witness case” that relies on a “deeply compromised” witness, he said. “This is winnable.” Kelley granted the request on the condition Abdelaziz turn in his passport after the trip.
Abdelaziz is among 33 prominent parents charged in what authorities have called the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted . Authorities say the parents paid an admission consultant to rig their children’s test scores and bribe coaches at sought-after schools.
The most familiar names of the accused parents are actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, but they’re not scheduled to appear in court until next week.
Among the others appearing Friday is 48-year-old Michelle Janavs, a former executive at her family’s food manufacturing company, Chef America, which made Hot Pockets before being bought out by Nestle for $2.6 billion in 2002.
She is accused of paying at least $100,000 to help her two daughters cheat on their college admissions exam and get into the University of Southern California as beach volleyball recruits.
William McGlashan, a 58-year-old former executive for the private equity firm TPG, is accused of paying bribes to get his son into USC as a recruit for the college’s storied football team, even though his son didn’t play football and his high school didn’t field a team.
And 53-year-old Austine Huneeus, whose family owns vineyards in California’s Napa Valley and in Oregon, is accused of paying at least $50,000 to have SAT administrators correct his daughter’s college entrance exam and to have USC officials designate her as a water polo recruit to improve her chances of getting into the college.
The initial court appearances are largely a formality.
Defendants weren’t asked to enter a plea Friday. Court officials simply recited the charges and maximum sentences while the judge informed the defendants of their rights and considered any special requests, such as Abdelaziz’s travel request.
The other defendants appearing Friday include prominent Miami developer Robert Zangrillo; Gregory Abbott, the founder and chairman of International Dispensing Corp. and his wife, Marcia Abbott; and Marci Palatella, who founded bourbon maker Preservation Distillery in Kentucky.
On Thursday, former Yale University women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith became the third person to plead guilty in the case. Rick Singer, the admissions consultant at the center of the scheme, has also pleaded guilty.