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Former head of Napa winery pleads guilty in university admissions scandal

Agustin Huneeus Jr., the former CEO and president of Huneeus Vintners, has pleaded guilty to offering a bribe to alter test scores and get his child a sports placement at a university.

Image: Huneeus Vintners

Huneeus pleaded guilty to charges at Boston federal court on Tuesday (21 May) which involved paying US$50,000 for someone to alter his daughter’s SAT scores and bribing a member of the University of Southern California athletics department a further $250,000 to secure a place on the water polo team.

He paid the $50,000 sum to alter the exam results in 2018 and made an initial $50,000 payment to the USC official before he was arrested.

Huneeus, who has already stepped down from his position at his wine company, has accepted the charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison; supervised release for three years; a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater; a mandatory special assessment of $100; restitution; and forfeiture to the extent charged.

In a written statement delivered outside court Huneeus expressed remorse and apologised to students who secured their place “on their own merit”.

“With my plea today, I am taking full responsibility for my wrongful actions,” he said. “My life has been devoted to my family and the people I have worked with and for. I have disappointed them all and brought shame on myself and the people I love.

“While I wish I could go back and make different and better choices, of course I cannot. What I can do now is to say: I am sorry and I apologise. Beyond my circle of family, friends and colleagues, I also apologise to students who work hard to get into college on their own merit, as well as to their families.

“Today’s plea was an important step in my effort to take responsibility and accept the consequences for acts that I deeply regret, and I hope that with time and effort, I will be able to earn back the respect of the people whose trust I have betrayed.”

Prosecutors have recommended that Huneeus serve 15 months in prison and receive other financial penalties. He will be sentenced in October.

Huneeus and Gordon Caplan, a former partner at a New York law firm who also entered a guilty plea on the same day, are the 12th and 13th defendants to plead guilty to charges as part of the scandal.

The scandal, which was first made public in March this year, centres 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 claimed to be a charitable institution that provides education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It has been 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.

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

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 also been arrested and charged for their involvement in the scandal. At the time of writing, they have yet to submit a plea.

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