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Former Stanford sailing coach gets one day in prison in college cheating scandal

NBC News logo NBC News 6/12/2019 Ezra Kaplan and David K. Li
a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a brick building: John Vandemoer arrives at the federal courthouse to face charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston on March 12, 2019. © Brian Snyder John Vandemoer arrives at the federal courthouse to face charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston on March 12, 2019.

BOSTON — Stanford University's former sailing coach avoided significant prison time and was sentenced Wednesday to just one day behind bars for his role in a massive college admissions scandal.

John Vandemoer was the first person to be sentenced in the sweeping corruption scandal that exposed the sophisticated network of college admissions ringleader William Rick Singer, who helped children of well-heeled clients cheat their way into elite universities.

U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel sided with defense lawyers who said their client should not get more than the one day, which the judge dismissed as time served. The government had asked the judge to sentence Vandemoer to 13 months in prison.

Before Wednesday, Vandemoer had already pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy for accepting $610,000 in bribes that all went into the school's sailing program. The money did not directly line Vandemoer's pockets, the judge and lawyers on both sides agreed.

"From what I know about the other cases, there is an agreement that Vandemoer is probably the least culpable of all the defendants in all of these cases," Zobel said. "All the money he got went directly to the sailing program."

In court on Wednesday, Vandemoer's voice choked with emotion as he apologized for his actions.

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"I want to be seen as someone who takes responsibility for mistakes," he said. "I want to tell you how I intend to live from this point forward. I will never again lose sight of my values."

Outside court, Vandemoer said he regrets how he "brought a cloud" over Stanford.

"Mistakes are never felt by just yourself, this mistake impacted the people I love and admire in my life," he said.

"Stanford is a place that I love ... I have brought a cloud over Stanford, the amazing students, athletes, coaches and alumni. I have let you down and that devastates me. I have so much respect for all of you and never wanted to let you down, but I did. I will carry this with me for the rest of my life."

Singer was among several college sports coaches caught up in the sweeping federal probe dubbed, "Operation Varsity Blues." The scandal netted Oscar-nominated actress Felicity Huffman and "Full House" star Lori Loughlin.

Vandemoer received two separate payments of $500,000 and $110,000 and was promised a third of $160,000 between fall 2016 and October 2018 on behalf of the Stanford sailing program to falsely represent that three clients of Singer's were elite sailors — and thus deserving of special admission to the private school, according to court documents.

Recruited athletes generally receive much more favorable consideration, even at elite campuses like Stanford.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen pleaded with Judge Zobel to send Vandemoer to prison and send a message about the case.

"The sentence that you impose will set the tone moving forward," Rosen said.

The prosecutor added: "This case goes far beyond John Vandemoer. The damage on Stanford goes much further. The actions undermine the confidence in the college admissions process."

The defense asked for leniency, arguing that the money Vandemoer received didn't go into his pocket, but instead went to a fund that supported Stanford's sailing program.

"It cannot be overstated: all parties agree that Mr. Vandemoer did not personally profit from the scheme," defense lawyer Robert Fisher wrote in his sentencing memo to the court. "Mr. Singer sent Mr. Vandemoer money, and he consistently turned that money over to Stanford."

And in court on Wednesday, Fisher reiterated that his client wasn't motivated by personal monetary gain.

"My client did not benefit from these actions," Fisher told the judge. "This is a man whose heart was in the right place."

Zobel also sentenced Vandemoer to two years of supervised release and six months of home confinement. The former coach was also fined $10,000.

"I am aware that these are serious offenses," Zobel said. "I find it hard in this case that Vandemoer should go to jail for more than a year."

Of the three students whose parents tried to bribe their way into Stanford, none them actually benefited from Singer and Vandemoer's scheme.

The first one's fake sailing application came too late in the recruiting season and "the student was later admitted to Stanford through the regular application process," according to prosecutors.

The next two opted to go to Brown University and Vanderbilt University, despite Vandemoer's help.

Vandemoer was fired by Stanford on March 12, hours after federal prosecutors unsealed indictments.

"Although Mr. Vandemoer's conduct resulted in donations to the Stanford sailing team, Stanford views those funds as tainted," according to a victim impact statement written to Judge Zobel by Stanford's general counsel, Debra Zumwalt. "Stanford takes no position regarding any specific sentence that this Court may impose."

The scandal gained international headlines when Loughlin and Huffman were indicted.

Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, have pleaded not guilty to charges that they paid $500,000 to help their two daughters get into the University of Southern California.

The private Los Angeles school has vowed to take a closer look at its admissions policies in the scandal's wake.

Huffman has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Prosecutors said the "Desperate Housewives" actress spent $15,000 to have wrong answers corrected on daughter Sofia Grace Macy's SAT. She will be sentenced on Sept. 13.

Ezra Kaplan reported from Boston and David K. Li from New York

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