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Napa Valley winemaker sentenced to 5 months in college admissions scandal

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Agustin Huneeus Jr., center, appears at federal court in Boston in May, when he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions scandal.
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

Agustin Huneeus Jr., a prominent Napa Valley winemaker until his arrest in the college admissions scandal, was sentenced Friday to five months in prison for paying to rig his daughter’s school entrance exam and trying to sneak her into USC as a bogus athlete.

The sentence is the latest handed down against a slew of wealthy, influential parents who opted to plead guilty to charges that they conspired with William “Rick” Singer, a college admissions consultant at the center of the scam, to fabricate test scores and bypass the admissions process at elite schools. Singer, too, has pleaded guilty to several felonies and is cooperating with prosecutors in their cases against his alleged accomplices. He awaits sentencing.

With her decision, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani dealt more harshly with Huneeus than she did with other parents sentenced so far, but stopped well short of the 15-month sentence that federal prosecutors had said was an appropriate penalty. Lawyers for Huneeus, meanwhile, had conceded before his sentencing that the 53-year-old father of three should not avoid prison altogether, but asked Talwani for just two months behind bars. Huneeus, they said, already had been punished badly by the loss of his company and public humiliation.

Along with incarceration, Talwani ordered Huneeus to pay a $100,000 fine and serve 500 hours of community service.

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Huneeus hurriedly stepped down in March as chief executive of Huneeus Vinters, a company his parents built, after being named as one of the dozens of parents charged in the scam. He pleaded guilty soon after, admitting he paid $100,000 to buy into the admissions scheme and was primed to pony up another $200,000 before authorities went public with their case.

Prosecutors had argued in court filings that even in a case marked by the greed and entitlement of exceptionally rich and privileged families, Huneeus stood out for his brazen, unabashed foray into the scam and his efforts to avail himself of all of Singer’s illegal offerings.

“Huneeus’s crime was calculated and carefully planned,” wrote Assistant U.S. Atty. Justin O’Connell in a memo to Talwani. “From the outset … Huneeus wanted to know exactly how the fraud worked, proposed ways to make it more effective, and demanded Singer’s attention. He did all this while acknowledging to Singer that what they were doing was wrong, that the scheme could ‘blow up in [his] face.’”

Of the 11 parents who have pleaded guilty in the case, O’Connell underscored that only Huneeus paid Singer both to inflate his daughter’s SAT score and secure her a spot at USC by allegedly bribing members of the school’s athletic department.

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In 2017, several months after Singer began providing legitimate help preparing his daughter to apply for college, Huneeus took the Newport Beach consultant up on his offer of a surefire way to lock in an impressive score on the teen’s upcoming SAT.

Instead of taking the exam at the tony Bay Area private school she attended, she flew down with her dad to West Hollywood, where Singer had the director of a school on his payroll. She was met there by another Singer accomplice, Mark Riddell — an expert test taker who coached the girl through the exam and corrected her incorrect answers. Singer charged Huneeus $50,000 for the service and paid $10,000 each to Riddell and the school director. Riddell, who fixed tests for several other Singer clients as well, has admitted to his role and is awaiting sentencing. The school director said in court papers this week that he, too, would plead guilty.

The good, but not exceptional, score that Riddell tailored for the teen left Huneeus unsatisfied. In phone conversations recorded by investigators and emails, Huneeus pressed Singer on why his money had not bought a higher score and floated the idea of rigging other exams. Singer talked him down, explaining that too high a score would have drawn suspicion.

Instead, Huneeus moved on to the other, more audacious part of Singer’s scheme. For $250,000, Singer would pay off contacts in USC’s athletic department to usher Huneeus’ daughter through a “side door” into the school by putting her forth as a bogus water polo player.

“Walk me through the whole, kinda, water polo thing again and how it works,” Huneeus said to Singer in a recorded phone call in August 2018. “Like the economics, the timing, how all that works.”

Although the girl did play the sport, she was, by her own admission, not good and fell far below the level required to play in USC’s program, according to court records. Following a blueprint he had used several times before, Singer concocted a sports resume full of made-up achievements and a photo showing another girl competing in a match. A USC water polo coach and senior athletics administrator then secured a spot for the girl by passing her off to admissions officials as a talented player, prosecutors allege.

At Singer’s direction, Huneeus sent a $50,000 check to a USC account controlled by the athletics administrator, Donna Heinel. Prosecutors unveiled their case in March before Huneeus completed the deal by sending $200,000 to Singer. The girl did not enroll at USC. Heinel and the water polo coach have pleaded not guilty.

In arguing for a light sentence, lawyers for Huneeus emphasized in a court filing that Huneeus’ daughter did not enroll at USC and, so, did not end up taking a spot at the selective school from a more deserving applicant. But after watching Talwani in recent weeks rebuff defense attorneys for other parents who argued their clients should be spared time in prison altogether, Huneeus’ defense team accepted he was destined for incarceration and tried instead to mitigate the punishment by underscoring Huneeus’ clean track record and reputation for fairness and kindness among people who worked for him.

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Until his downfall, Huneeus ran his family’s company, which owns several brands of wine and made news in 2016 when it sold one of its popular labels for a reported $285 million to another company. He relinquished control of the company in the days after his arrest over concerns his legal troubles could put the company’s license to produce wine in jeopardy.

Huneeus himself struck a tone of contrition in a letter to the judge, saying he accepted responsibility for his crime.

“I am looking forward to my sentencing so I can start to put this behind me. I want to pay my dues and feel clean again. This has been the most consequential experience I have ever had to overcome and it is self-inflicted,” he wrote.

On the same day Huneeus learned his fate, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed three bills in response to the college admissions scandal, including a mandate that any “admission by exception” to the state’s many public campuses be approved by multiple university administrators.

“The governor takes seriously the admissions scandal that rocked several universities earlier this year, which is why he signed three bills into law that address the integrity in college admissions in California,” said Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Newsom.

Newsom also gave his signature to a measure that prevents those found guilty in the admissions scandal from getting tax deductions for payments they made to Singer, money that he often funneled through a sham charity. The third measure approved by Newsom requires the California State University and University of California systems, as well as independent universities, to report to the Legislature whether they provide any form of preferential treatment in admissions to applicants on the basis of their relationships to donors or alumni.

Newsom said the reforms he signed, along with bills to help students financially, address concerns that some Californians are at a disadvantage in trying to get a college education.

The requirement that three college administrators sign off on “admissions by exception” applies to students who don’t meet a school’s regular admission requirements, but get in because of a special talent, such as athletic or performing arts skills, or are deemed disadvantaged. In 2018, the Cal State system enrolled 1,410 students by exception, including 924 students who were not disadvantaged.

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Under the law, students who gain entry through athletic or fine arts programs will be required to participate in the programs for at least a year — a requirement meant to guard against scams such as Singer’s side door.


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