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Parents changing pleas as prosecutors threaten more charges in college admissions case

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 10/20/2019 By Matthew Ormseth and Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times
a person is walking down the street: William "Rick" Singer leaves Boston Federal Court after being charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice on March 12, 2019 in Boston, Ma. © Scott Eisen/Getty Images North America/TNS William "Rick" Singer leaves Boston Federal Court after being charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice on March 12, 2019 in Boston, Ma.

LOS ANGELES - Federal prosecutors are ratcheting up pressure on parents who have maintained their innocence in the college admissions scandal with a warning they intend to file additional criminal charges as early as next week, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The prospect of having to defend against a new bribery allegation, in addition to the money laundering and fraud conspiracy charges already leveled against them, spurred three parents to reverse course quickly and cut their losses with guilty pleas.

Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of the investment management firm Pimco, Manuel Henriquez, a Bay Area venture capitalist, and Michelle Janavs, a Newport Coast philanthropist, are scheduled to appear in a Boston courtroom Monday to formally admit their roles in the admissions scam.

In deciding to plead guilty, the three parents set themselves on a path that will end almost certainly with them being sentenced to several months in prison, if not longer. For them, seemingly, it was the lesser of two bad options when weighed against the possibility of being convicted at trial - an outcome that would mean far more time behind bars.

The 16 other parents in the group, so far, have calculated their options differently, sticking to the not guilty pleas they entered when they were arrested in March.

In all, more than 50 people have been charged in the case, which prosecutors have said is the largest ever of its kind.

The stable of defendants includes nearly three dozen parents, as well as college athletic coaches and others accused of working with William "Rick" Singer, a Newport Beach consultant who has admitted to running a wide-ranging scheme in which he paid off accomplices to rig test scores for the children of his wealthy clients or outright bought them spots at elite schools. Singer has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Many of the parents and other alleged accomplices pleaded guilty early on in the case, which won them more favorable treatment from prosecutors, who minimized the number of charges and agreed to seek lenient sentences. By contrast, the government has played hardball against those who maintained their innocence, adding the money laundering conspiracy charge and, now, threatening to up the ante even more with a bribery charge.

The charge of federal program bribery can be brought against someone who is accused of paying a bribe and receiving in exchange something valued at $5,000 or more from an organization or agency that receives $10,000 or more in funding from the federal government. A parent who paid Singer for either the test cheating or the athletic recruit schemes would meet the standard.

The reversal of Henriquez, formerly the chairman and chief executive of Hercules Capital, who is accused of paying nearly half a million dollars to rig college entrance exams for two daughters and have one of them admitted to Georgetown as a fake tennis recruit, is notable given the scope of his alleged misdeeds.

A federal judge who has sentenced 10 of Singer's former clients has indicated that parents such as Henriquez who exploited the testing and athletic recruitment scams should expect considerable prison terms.

Agustin Huneeus Jr., a Napa vintner, was sentenced to five months in prison, the longest sentence handed down in the case so far. He admitted conspiring to fix his daughter's SAT score and to have her admitted to the University of Southern California as a bogus water polo player. Huneeus, however, accepted an early deal offered by prosecutors in Boston and avoided being indicted on an additional charge of money laundering conspiracy.

Henriquez, a resident of Atherton, Calif., was charged along with his wife, Elizabeth. There is no indication in court records that Elizabeth Henriquez intends to change her not guilty plea, and her attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Also on Friday, Janavs announced her plan to plead guilty. The Newport Beach woman once served as an executive at her family's food manufacturing company. She is also accused of paying Singer for the test cheating and athletic recruit aspects of the scam, in which she sought to have her daughter admitted to USC as a purported beach volleyball recruit.

Their moves came a day after Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of bond manager Pimco, said he would plead guilty.

A spokesman for the law firm representing Manuel Henriquez said his attorneys weren't available for comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Boston declined to comment.

Beginning in fall 2015 and continuing through summer 2016, the Henriquezes paid Singer a total of $450,000, and Manuel Henriquez used his influence at his alma mater, Northeastern University, to ensure the child of another of Singer's clients was admitted to the school, prosecutors alleged in the indictment to which Manuel Henriquez will plead guilty.

In return, Singer rigged ACT, SAT and SAT subject tests for the couple's daughters. Singer's accomplice, Mark Riddell, a Harvard-educated administrator at IMG Academy, told prosecutors he sat alongside the older daughter in October 2015 and told her the answers to her SAT; afterward, Riddell said he "gloated" with the girl and her mother, court papers say.

Singer also arranged with Gordon Ernst, Georgetown's former head tennis coach, to misrepresent the couple's older daughter to the school as a promising tennis recruit, according to the indictment. Ernst, who left Georgetown in 2017 after the school said it discovered "irregularities" in his recruiting practices, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The girl submitted an essay to Georgetown that, according to an affidavit for her parents' arrest, read, in part, "Being a part of Georgetown women's tennis team has always been a dream of mine. For years I have spent three - four hours a day grinding out on and off court workouts with the hopes of becoming successful enough to play college tennis especially at Georgetown."

While she told the school she was ranked among the top 50 players in her class by the United States Tennis Association, prosecutors said in court papers that "at her best, she appears to have ranked 207th in Northern California in the under-12 girls division, with an overall win/loss record of 2-8."

After she was admitted to Georgetown in 2016, her parents wired from the Henriquez Family Trust a purported charitable gift of $400,000 to Singer's foundation, which prosecutors say had little, if any, charitable purpose and was used instead to funnel money from his clients to corrupt coaches, test administrators and proctors.

After Singer arranged to fix an ACT exam for the Henriquezes' younger child, he initially intended to charge the couple $75,000, prosecutors said. Instead, they allege, Manuel Henriquez used his pull at Northeastern University - where he is a prominent alumnus and former member of a governing board - to usher the child of another of Singer's clients into the school.

After the applicant was admitted, his family paid Singer $250,000, court papers say.

Singer was apprehended in September 2018 and began cooperating with law enforcement. He met with the Henriquezes in their Atherton home in January, wearing a wire. He told them, falsely, that one of his accomplices had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.

The grand jury, Singer told the couple, was hearing evidence about students from out of state taking their standardized tests at the Houston high school where the Henriquezes' younger daughter allegedly took her ACT. Singer said he wanted to be sure all former clients had their stories straight if anyone inquired about the school.

"Anybody calls me," Manuel Henriquez assured him, according to a transcript of the recorded conversation filed in federal court, "the response is that, 'I'm not gonna comment regarding my daughter's Houston issue.'"

"I'm not gonna comment," he added. "We gotta be very careful on just getting an inbound call from somebody. 'I have no idea who you are. So I'm not responding to an inbound call from anybody.'"

Amid the flurry of activity, the 10th parent among those who pleaded guilty early on in the case was sentenced Friday.

Robert Flaxman, a Beverly Hills real estate developer, was sentenced to a month in prison for paying Singer $75,000 to rig his daughter's entrance test score.

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