Close Menu

Three high-powered drinks execs charged in university admissions scandal

A Napa vintner, a Bourbon distiller and a founder of a food and drink distributor are among those that have been arrested for paying large sums of money as bribes to get their children into top US universities.

US attorney Lelling announces charges in the scam. Image: Twitter, US Attorney MA

Agustin Huneeus Jr., president of Napa Valley’s Huneeus Vintners, Marci Palatella, founder and owner of Preservation Distillery in Kentucky, and Gregory Abbott, founder and chairman of New York food and beverage distributor International Dispensing Corp have all been arrested and charged for their involvement in a university admissions scandal in the US.

The scandal is said to centre around William “Rick” Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, California. Singer owned and operated Edge College and Career Network, a college counselling and preparation service, and was the CEO of the Key World Foundation (KWF), which claims to be a charitable institution that provides education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In a statement released yesterday (12 March) from US Attorney’s Office in the District of Massachusetts, it was alleged that between 2011 and February 2019, Singer conspired with parents, athletic coaches, a university athletics administrator and others to secure placements for students at top universities. These include Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and Wake Forest University.

As well as Singer, 33 parents and 13 coaches and business associates have been charged for their involvement in concealing bribes and fixing test scores. The total number of people charged in relation to this scheme is 50.

The scandal involved bribing SAT and ACT exam administrators to allow someone else to take tests in the place of the student, or to correct the answers of a student sitting the exams. It also involved paying university sports coaches and administrators to provide places for students under the guise of being top athletes. Singer’s charitable organisation was then used to conceal both the nature and source of payments.

Singer has been charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. He pleaded guilty in court in Boston yesterday afternoon.

Huneeus, Palatella and Abbott have all been charged charged in a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

According to court documents, it is alleged that Huneeus was involved in both college entrance exam cheating and the college recruitment scheme. He paid US$50,000 for college entrance exams for his daughter to the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and also bribed officials to get her admitted as a water polo recruit.

Palatella also took part in both schemes, paying $75,000 for her son’s entrance exams to the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and bribed officials to get him admitted as a football recruit.

Abbott and his wife Marcia, paid bribes of around $50,000 and $75,000 for their daughter’s ACT and SAT exams to be forged.

In a news conference, however, Andrew Lelling, US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, suggested that the sums involved were far greater.

“Singer’s clients paid him anywhere between $200,000 and $6.5 million for this service,” he said. He added that in most cases, the sum offered was between $250,000 and $400,000 per student.

He continued: “These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege. They include, for example, CEOs of private and public companies, successful securities and real estate investors, two well-known actresses, a famous fashion designer and the co-chairman of a global law firm.

“There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

Others charged in relation to the scheme include actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, Michelle Janavs, a former executive of a large food manufacturer, and Peter Jan Sartorio founder of food start-up PJ’s Organic.

More information about each case is listed here. 

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No