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Bay Area entrepreneur is spared prison in college admissions scandal

Peter Jan Sartorio
In this May 22, 2019 file photo, Jan Sartorio leaves federal court in Boston after pleading guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. Sartorio was sentenced on Friday to one year of probation.
(Michael Dwyer/AP)

If any of the parents waiting to be sentenced in the college admissions scandal stood a chance at avoiding prison, it was Peter Jan Sartorio.

He was, by any measurement, a small fish in a case filled with high-profile names and deep pockets: The $15,000 the 54-year-old food entrepreneur from the Bay Area paid to rig his daughter’s college entrance exam matched the lowest amount parents shelled out in the scam. And with neither fame nor fortune, Sartorio didn’t fit the mold of the rich, entitled parent who prosecutors said needed to be punished with time behind bars. He also was the first to admit his guilt.

On Friday a judge in Boston decided Sartorio was, in fact, less culpable than the others. She spared him prison time, sentencing him instead to probation and community service.

Sartorio is the eighth parent sentenced in the case and, for all up to now, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani decided some amount of incarceration was needed. The judge opted to go more lightly on Sartorio than she did on the actress Felicity Huffman, who received two weeks in prison for the same offense.

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Sartorio was ordered to spend a year on probation, serve 250 hours of community service and pay a $9.500 fine.

In all, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston has charged more than 50 people since March when it unveiled the case that is thought to be the largest of its kind ever prosecuted. William “Rick” Singer, who pleaded guilty to several felonies and is cooperating with prosecutors, has acknowledged running the two-pronged scheme in which he bribed accomplices either to fix test scores or to give up admission spots at selective schools that are reserved for recruited athletes. Many of the parents, coaches and others facing charges have maintained their innocence and are awaiting trial.

Sartorio, who lives in Menlo Park and founded “a small, natural food company,” followed Singer down the same well-worn path as several other defendants in committing his crime, prosecutors wrote in court filings.

In the spring of 2017, Sartorio agreed to pay Singer $15,000 to secure illicit help for his daughter on the ACT, a standardized entrance exam. Instead of taking the test at her high school, as is typical, the girl traveled to a small private school in West Hollywood. There, a man posing as a proctor corrected several errors she had made on the test. The would-be proctor has pleaded guilty to working for Singer and the school’s director recently announced the he, too, will plead guilty to taking payments from Singer.

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Prosecutors had sought a one-month sentence for Sartorio, saying it was clear the father of two knew at the time that what he was doing was wrong. They underscored in court papers that when it came time to pay Singer, Sartorio avoided leaving a paper trail by paying cash and made multiple withdrawals from different accounts to avoid triggering automatic reviews by banking officials.

When Singer called Sartorio on a recorded line to discuss the deal at the behest of investigators, Sartorio incriminated himself. He assured Singer: “There is nothing on my end that shows that your company, Rick, or anybody, received any cash payments.… There’s no record. There’s nothing. There’s nothing.”

The inflated score the girl received on her exam was a significant improvement from her performance on previous exams and was submitted to several colleges as part of her applications, prosecutors said in court papers. It is not known what schools admitted her and where she enrolled.

In seeking the prison sentence, Assistant U.S. Atty. Kristen Kearney reasoned in a memo to the judge that “of course Sartorio knew that what he was doing was wrong.” The decision to conceal the payments, she wrote, “was not something Singer suggested to him. It was Sartorio’s idea, an independent contribution to the scheme, designed to make it harder to detect.”

“Crimes like this one — committed in secret and paid for in cash — are difficult to detect, and still more difficult to prosecute. When discovered, they must have meaningful consequences. Prison will deter other would-be cheaters by sending an unmistakable message that buying fraudulent test scores is a serious crime that will, if uncovered, lead to serious punishment,” Kearney wrote.

Until Friday’s decision, Talwani had accepted the government’s argument that all 15 parents who have pleaded guilty should be sent to prison, but the judge has landed on sentences considerably shorter than what prosecutors wanted.

For example, the lengthiest sentence she has handed down was five months to a parent who prosecutors said deserved 15 months in prison. When she sentenced Huffman, who paid the same amount as Sartorio for the same test cheating scheme, Talwani said the actress was among the “least culpable” of the parents.

Sartorio’s lawyer, Peter Levitt, argued in a memo to Talwani that prison was unnecessary, asking instead for a sentence of probation. Sartorio, he emphasized, had not involved his daughter in the scam and came forward quickly to plead guilty.

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Unlike other parents who offered equivocating mea culpas in which they presented themselves as victims of Singer, Levitt said Sartorio “genuinely and unequivocally accepts responsibility for his crime and recognizes that the victims of his offense are the students who took the test without seeking unfair advantage.”

Levitt also tried to set Sartorio apart from the other parents, telling Talwani there was no value in making an example of him because he lacks their wealth and influence.

“With the sentencings to date, the Court has perhaps sent a deterrent message that federal prosecution can serve as a leveler to wealth, power, and fame.... By comparison with the other defendants in this case, no such leveling or messaging is necessary or applicable in the case of Mr. Sartorio. Indeed, Mr. Sartorio’s case presents the opportunity for a different message — that federal sentencing is individualized and that incarceration is not always the answer,” Levitt wrote.

It was an argument the judge apparently found persuasive.


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