College admissions scandal shows ‘sacrifice matters less than money,’ prosecutors say

Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer arrives at a Boston federal court for his arraignment March 12.
(Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

The college admissions scandal has shaken the country’s trust in higher education and corroborated a “national fear” that the process can be rigged to favor the rich, prosecutors wrote in arguing why a coach mired in the scandal should go to prison.

In a sentencing memorandum filed Friday, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts described the effect of a scandal they uncovered in March — an incendiary case that has indicted not just wealthy parents from Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the Newport Coast, but the belief that there is some meritocratic calculus behind college admissions.

Thirty-three parents have been charged. Some are accused of paying to doctor their children’s entrance exams, others to disguise their kids as recruited athletes, which ensured their admittance to prestigious schools as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. A handful are suspected of paying for both.

The case has no less than “shaken the nation,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo for former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, describing “thousands of newspaper articles” published in its wake that articulated disgust, cynicism and anger that seats at some of the country’s most venerable schools could be bought so easily as described in court papers.


The scandal, prosecutors said, “confirms, for many, the worst of what they had long suspected: that hard work and sacrifice matters less than money and the access it buys.”

Vandemoer has admitted to accepting $610,000 in bribes from Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer, the scheme’s admitted mastermind. Vandemoer pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy in March.

Prosecutors requested that Vandemoer be sentenced next week to 13 months in prison — considerably less than in his plea deal, in which they said they’d recommend a sentencing range of 33 to 41 months.

But Vandemoer, they said in the memo filed Friday, “has otherwise led a law-abiding life, did not directly profit financially from his crimes, promptly accepted responsibility for them, appears genuinely remorseful, and is unlikely to reoffend.”

Full coverage: Dozens charged — including Hollywood actresses — in connection with college admissions scheme »

Vandemoer’s attorneys say he “failed in one instance to live up to the high expectations he sets for himself” and should receive only probation.

“Mr. Vandemoer did not pocket a dime,” they wrote.

Singer’s bribes went not to Vandemoer himself, prosecutors acknowledged, but to Stanford’s sailing program. Still, they contend he benefited from topping up his program’s coffers: The funds “enhanced his own status within the university,” they wrote, “gave him more money to use for the sailing program he implemented, and furthered his career.”

Vandemoer will be sentenced in Boston on June 12.

Friday’s court filing shed new light on his arrangement with Singer, which produced the most eye-popping sum in the scandal so far: a $6.5-million payment Singer received from a Chinese family after their daughter was admitted to Stanford.

Vandemoer first met Singer in 2016, when the Newport Beach college admissions consultant asked Vandemoer to designate a child of a client as a sailing recruit, prosecutors said in the sentencing memo. The memo does not name the applicant and describes her only as “Student A” and of Chinese nationality, but The Times previously identified her as Yusi Zhao.

Singer crafted a bogus sailing profile for Zhao and “made clear” to Vandemoer that her family would endow salaries for sailing coaches, with Singer acting as the transaction’s “guarantor,” the memo says.

The scheme, however, was initiated too late in the recruiting season for Zhao to be admitted as an athlete, according to the memo. Zhao got into Stanford through the regular application process several months later, it says.

After she was admitted, her family paid Singer $6.5 million. Singer then made a $500,000 payment to Stanford’s sailing program.

The Zhaos’ attorney has denied the $6.5-million payment constituted a bribe. No member of the Zhao family has been charged in the investigation. Yusi Zhao has been expelled from Stanford.

Singer paid Vandemoer’s program an additional $110,000 in 2018; in exchange, the coach designated the child of Singer’s client as a sailor. The applicant, however, chose to attend Brown University, the memo says.

Later that year, Vandemoer conspired again with Singer to pass off the child of a client as a recruited sailor, telling Stanford, “she is an athlete from other sports who converted late to sailing,” according to the memo.

The girl lived in Las Vegas and did not sail competitively, prosecutors said, but Vandemoer told Stanford she “commutes to Newport Beach to sail” and “has the potential to be a really athletic crew for us.”

Despite being approved by the university as a sailing recruit, she attended up choosing Vanderbilt, the memo says.

Singer broke the news of her school choice to Vandemoer in October, at which point Singer had been apprehended and was cooperating with authorities. With federal agents listening in, he told Vandemoer, “I got some bad news.”

“She really wants to go to Vanderbilt. So they’re not going to move forward,” Singer said. “And they’re not going to make their $500,000 payment to you. But I’m, you know, I’m still going to be supportive to you.”

Singer told Vandemoer he would send him $100,000 to $200,000 for the trouble, according to a transcript of the call.

“Hopefully it, you know, keeps our relationship alive,” he said. He sent Vandemoer a check for $160,000.

In February, agents approached Vandemoer at his home. At first, prosecutors say, he denied taking part in the scheme. But he soon admitted he’d taken bribes to pass off the children of Singer’s clients as sailors, that he’d hidden the arrangement from Stanford, and “that he knew that what he was doing was wrong,” prosecutors wrote.

Vandemoer’s involvement in the scheme has shattered “his dream life,” his attorneys wrote in their own sentencing memorandum.

“He had a nice house, a great family, and got to spend all day on the water, coaching bright, young people in the sport he loved,” they said.

He was evicted from his university housing the day he was arrested and fired, his attorneys say. He can hardly expect to be hired by any university ever again. And his children “may have to leave their daycare.”

“For the last three months,” they wrote, Vandemoer “has been publicly reminded about this mistake every day and he will continue to have to live with the knowledge that everyone — from loved ones to acquaintances — knows about the worst mistake of his life.”