Finger-pointing and outrage follow Trump’s pardon for USC father in college admission scandal
Federal prosecutors had accused Robert Zangrillo, a Miami developer, of a costly and criminal effort to secure his daughter’s entry to USC.
In 2017, Zangrillo hired associates of Newport Beach consultant Rick Singer to secretly complete his daughter’s high school classes. Later, Zangrillo paid others to complete his daughter’s community college classes. And to get his daughter accepted to USC as a transfer student, prosecutors alleged, he opted for Singer’s notorious “side door,” paying $250,000 as part of a scheme to falsely cast his daughter as a crew recruit.
A trial was scheduled for later this year in Boston on charges related to fraud, bribery and money laundering.
Yet in the final hours of his presidency on Wednesday, Donald Trump extended a merciful hand toward the wealthy Florida investor and issued a “full pardon” that appeared to put an end to the prosecution.
The fallout was swift.
In a statement, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew E. Lelling, took a swipe at Zangrillo for “having his own daughter knowingly participate in a scheme to lie to USC,” and said the pardon demonstrated “precisely why Operation Varsity Blues was necessary in the first place.”
Trump ends presidency with a slew of pardons for friends, associates and others with connections.
The White House said the pardon was backed by several businesspeople, including L.A. developer Geoff Palmer, but also investor Thomas J. Barrack, a USC alumnus and a university trustee, which drew shock at the campus and beyond.
Barrack, a longtime friend of Trump who also chaired his inauguration committee, denied playing any role.
“Mr. Barrack had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Zangrillo’s pardon,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “He never intervened and never had discussion with anyone about it. All reports to the contrary are patently false.”
A USC spokeswoman declined to comment on the pardon, even though the university was considered a victim of the alleged fraud.
“I hope it’s true that a USC trustee, with a fiduciary duty to the university, played no role in securing a pardon for a wrongdoer whose actions have done so much harm to USC’s reputation,” said Ariela Gross, a law professor and chair of Concerned Faculty of USC, a group of hundreds of faculty.
A person familiar with Barrack who was not authorized to comment publicly told The Times that Zangrillo had not met the prominent trustee, but had tried several avenues to get his help in connection with the college admissions case. Zangrillo was blocked at every turn, the person said.
There appeared to be other questionable elements in the pardon announcement. The White House said Amber Zangrillo was “currently earning” a 3.9 grade-point average at USC, but a university spokesperson confirmed to The Times that she was not enrolled there.
And Sean Parker, the tech billionaire and Napster founder, denied playing any role in Zangrillo’s case, despite the White House including him among the supporters.
“Sean doesn’t know [Zangrillo] and did not make any request for a pardon on his behalf,” Parker’s spokesman said.
When prosecutors unveiled the college admissions case in 2019, USC was the epicenter of the bribery and fraud scheme, with an administrator, a coach, a professor and more than a dozen parents facing charges.
Zangrillo’s case stood out. He was the only defendant accused of paying third parties to complete his daughter’s high school and college coursework. In court filings, prosecutors detailed how involved both father and daughter were in Singer’s scheme.
In a conversation intercepted by investigators, Singer told Robert Zangrillo and his daughter that she would go through USC’s admissions process as an athletic recruit. After she was accepted, Zangrillo sent $50,000 to USC’s athletics department, in accordance with Singer’s instructions, and later paid $200,000 to Singer, prosecutors said.
Donna Heinel, a former administrator in USC’s athletics department who prosecutors say was part of Singer’s scheme, had not categorized Zangrillo as a recruit but as a “VIP,” even though she was not an elite athlete. Prosecutors contended that although Amber Zangrillo was ultimately granted admission as a VIP, and not a recruited athlete, her father understood that she was being fraudulently packaged to USC as a gifted rower.
“Mr. Zangrillo encouraged, aided, abetted and paid for that fraud on multiple, multiple occasions,” Eric Rosen, a federal prosecutor, said in a 2019 hearing.
From the outset, Zangrillo waged a uniquely aggressive campaign for his defense and sought to expose USC’s admissions practices. His lawyers fought for a raft of internal documents about USC’s admissions and the role of philanthropy in elevating applicants.
Zangrillo’s legal team also wanted USC to turn over a particularly sensitive set of information: the names of prominent people who had gone to bat for certain applicants.
USC and its lawyers from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher fought hard against revealing those names, but a judge ultimately ordered the school to turn over the documents to Zangrillo’s lawyers without redactions, names and all.
The pardon for Zangrillo could prevent that information and other aspects of USC’s admissions from being aired during a jury trial.
Behind Zangrillo’s pugnacious legal strategy was a defense that hinged on the theory that USC routinely admitted the offspring of donors and other prominent individuals as special or “VIP” applicants.
“The notion that Robert Zangrillo’s $50,000 check to USC, made after his daughter’s admission, was a ‘bribe’ is legally wrong — there was no quid pro quo corrupt agreement between Mr. Zangrillo and USC that brought this relatively ordinary gift to a university into the orbit of the federal criminal law,” his lawyers wrote in a 2019 filing.
“It was a donation indistinguishable from the vast numbers of other donations by parents of students made to USC and apparently to other universities and colleges nationwide,” the lawyers added.
While others ensnared in the college admissions scandal have spent time in prison or lost work, Zangrillo has remained active in business.
He is the founder and CEO of Dragon Global, an investment firm, and late last year, his attorneys told a judge he was involved in meeting potential investors and exploring business opportunities in Mexico.
Zangrillo sought permission to travel to Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum for 10 days of business meetings last November. A judge approved the trip.
Times staff writer Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.
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