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Former San Diego TV exec to plead guilty in college bribery scandal

Elisabeth Kimmel
(Courtesy of KFMB)

A former La Jolla television executive whose prosecution in the sweeping college admissions bribery scandal was barreling toward trial has agreed to plead guilty, according to a letter filed in Boston federal court Thursday.

Elisabeth Kimmel, 57, has agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud via videoconference at a hearing set for Monday.

According to the deal, prosecutors and Kimmel’s defense have agreed to recommend a sentence of six weeks in prison and a year of home confinement, plus a $250,000 fine and 500 hours of community service. However, a judge will ultimately determine the sentence and could depart from the joint recommendation.

Kimmel, who once owned KFMB stations as part of her family-owned Midwest Television Inc., now lives in Las Vegas. She is accused of paying $475,000 in bribes to get her two children into Georgetown University and the USC through a “side door” as athletic recruits for sports they didn’t play, according to the charging document.

The mastermind of the scheme is William “Rick” Singer, who operated a for-profit college counseling and preparation business in Newport Beach. Singer had curated relationships with administrative officials and athletic coaches at prestigious universities around the country and paid them to ensure admission for the children of certain wealthy clients, according to prosecutors.

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The FBI investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” sparked outrage nationwide and led to calls for admissions reform, particularly at upper-crust schools.

Federal prosecutors accused top CEOs, two Hollywood actresses and others of taking part in an audacious scheme to get their children into elite universities through fraud, bribes and lies.

According to the complaint, Kimmel funneled the bribes through her family’s charitable foundation to Singer’s own foundation and USC’s Women’s Athletics Board.

In 2012, she worked with Singer and Georgetown’s tennis coach, Gordon Ernst, to get her daughter into the elite school as a tennis recruit, even though she was a field hockey player, the complaint states. The effort cost $275,000.

Again in 2017, Kimmel asked Singer to get her son into USC, the complaint states. The teen was recruited as a track and field athlete — “one of the top pole vaulters in the state of California,” according to his application — despite no record of participating in the sport in high school. That cost $250,000, including a $50,000 check allegedly signed by Kimmel’s husband.

At one point, the son voiced confusion after being asked at school about being a track athlete. Kimmel and her husband — the latter of whom was not charged in the case — were recorded on a phone call with Singer saying they were concerned the teen might find out, the complaint states.

The plea comes about two months after a judge denied Kimmel’s motion to dismiss the charges against her.

Kimmel had argued in May that the paramilitary-style arrest at her La Jolla home in March 2019 had triggered a life-threatening cardiac injury that landed her in the hospital. That condition put her “at mortal risk” if she testified in her own defense at trial, which had been set for September, the motion said.

In late June, a judge denied the motion, saying the FBI’s arrest seemed to follow standard protocol and that agents were responsive to her medical needs.

“Although the Court is sympathetic to defendant’s medical condition, any risk to Kimmel’s health posed by trial is speculative,” he wrote.

Kimmel will be the 32nd parent to plead guilty in the case, including two others from San Diego County, as well as actor Lori Laughlin, her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Guiannulli, and actor Felicity Huffman.

Several others, including coaches and college officials, have also been charged. Ernst, the Georgetown coach, has pleaded not guilty and is set to stand trial in November.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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