USC officials discussed how much wealthy parents could donate when their children applied, records show

A cache of emails between USC’s athletic and admissions offices were made public Tuesday when an attorney for a father facing charges in the college admissions scandal filed them in court.
(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)

Messages sent between USC’s athletic and admissions offices underscore a truism in college admissions: money talks.

The emails, which were made public Tuesday when an attorney for a father facing charges in the college admissions scandal filed them in court, turn an unsparing light on how the university flags children of possible donors and other influential families for special consideration in the application process.

The emails, for example, include the wish list of “special interest” applicants a top official from the athletic department sent each spring to the head of the school’s admissions office. In the emails, as well as internal spreadsheets included in the filings, the students were often identified by how much money their parents had donated or were expected to give to the school. Influential figures at USC who were pushing for a student to be admitted were also noted and, in some cases, a parent’s profession was listed.

In a spreadsheet attached to one of the emails, which included roughly 200 “special interest” applicants put forth by the athletic department between 2012 and 2015, a note for one student read, “25,000 check and more later.” Another read, “1 mil pledge.” Several others were noted simply as “donor.”

An attorney for Robert Zangrillo, a Miami financier, filed the internal messages as part of his defense against charges Zangrillo made payments to the admitted mastermind of the admissions scheme, William “Rick” Singer, and a Singer associate at USC to sneak his daughter into the school.

In court filings, the attorney, Martin Weinberg, has argued that far from amounting to a crime, the steps Zangrillo took were squarely in line with how USC handles admissions for VIP families.

Weinberg subpoenaed USC for information on all students the university has flagged in recent years as being what the school labels “special interest” and the donations given by their families. USC is fighting the subpoena, calling it in court filings a “fishing expedition” that goes far beyond the scope of Zangrillo’s case. In turn, Weinberg filed the emails Tuesday, in hopes that they persuade a judge to order USC to comply with his demand for records.


If turned over, Weinberg wrote in a court filing, the records would “prove the existence of a university-wide program at USC ... where past donations, pledges of future donations, or expectation of future donations based on the university’s belief in a parent’s resources deeply affects the chances for a prospective student’s admission as does a variety of factors other than just grades and test scores, including recommendations on the prospective student’s behalf by persons of power, wealth, or position in the USC community, past or present.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for USC said the school has made no secret of the fact that it allows officials across its campus to flag applicants for special attention but said the office of admissions alone decides which students are admitted to the selective university.

“Mr. Zangrillo’s filing appears to be part of a legal and public relations strategy to divert attention from the criminal fraud for which he has been indicted by a federal grand jury. USC remains confident that the court will agree with us that it need not produce the information and documents requested by the defendant.”

The emails clearly show USC officials discussed potential donations from the parents of applicants. But it’s unclear exactly what role that played in decisions.

The head of the USC admissions office said in a court filing that admissions decisions were not influenced by donations.

The legal fight has only increased the scrutiny on USC, which is at the center of the sprawling college admissions scandal. In March, federal prosecutors in Boston unveiled charges against dozens of parents — including actresses, tech figures and corporate power brokers — accusing them of hiring Singer to bribe and cheat their children into elite colleges. Singer’s attorney declined to comment.

Although Singer had toeholds on numerous campuses, USC stands out: Four members of the school’s athletic department and 19 parents of USC students were charged in the case.

To ensure his daughter, Amber, was admitted to USC, prosecutors say, Zangrillo paid $200,000 to Singer, a Newport Beach college admissions consultant, and $50,000 to an account controlled by Donna Heinel, a top USC athletics administrator. Zangrillo has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy.

Singer is the admitted linchpin of a sprawling, nearly decade-long scheme to fix college entrance exams for the children of his wealthy clients and misrepresent them to universities as recruited athletes. He pleaded guilty to four felonies in March and cooperated with federal prosecutors in Massachusetts who uncovered his scam. Heinel, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, was fired from her post when she was arrested.

Heinel, who served as the athletic department’s liaison with the school’s admissions office, wrote many of the emails made public Tuesday. Other emails were written by development officers at USC who develop relationships with wealthy families in hopes of persuading them to make large donations to the school.

In one exchange in 2014, Heinel notified several development officers that the son of a wealthy family had been admitted to the school as a water polo player. The development officers then discussed how much money the family could be expected to give, with one saying they were “a high level prospect with 1-5M potential,” presumably referring to a donation of $1 million to $5 million.

After the family seems to not make a donation, Heinel offers to “have Admissions pull the approval” for the boy to attend USC. A development officer declines the officer, writing, “really sucks don’t pull we will guilt them.”

Nina Marino, Heinel’s attorney, said in a statement that the emails underscore “an aspect of USC admission that was directly linked to donations.”

Heinel, she said, “did not create this system” and did work that was in line with the expectations of the athletic directors she worked under.

In a spreadsheet maintained by the athletics and admissions department, there was an applicant who, despite a grade point average well below what is typically needed to gain admission to USC, came from a family that had pledged $3 million to the men’s golf program. He was flagged as “VIP” and had the blessing of Pat Haden, the athletic director at the time.

In the “thoughts” category for another student, an administrator wrote simply, "$15 mil.”

And the son of “a well known ortho surgeon” was given “VIP” status despite a subpar 2.88 grade point average and an equally lacking score on his entrance exam.

There was another “VIP” applicant who was apparently viewed as such a boon to the university that, in lieu of noting a specific upside to the university, which was categorized in codes, his or her application was simply flagged as “every code known to man.”