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Newport mother sentenced to 5 months for paying to fix daughters’ college entrance exams

Michelle Janavs walks to the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse on March 29 in Boston.
Michelle Janavs walks to the U.S. courthouse in Boston in March. Janavs, of Newport Coast, was sentenced Tuesday to five months in prison for her role in the college admissions scandal.
(File Photo / AFP/Getty Images)

Michelle Janavs, heiress to a frozen foods fortune, was sentenced Tuesday to five months in prison for paying $100,000 to fix her daughters’ college entrance exams and agreeing to pay twice that amount to sneak one girl into USC as a bogus beach volleyball player.

Janavs, a resident of Newport Coast whose family invented the Hot Pockets microwavable snacks and endowed the business school at UC Irvine, pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering, admitting she paid William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach college admissions consultant, to rig ACT exams for her daughters and bribe a USC administrator to misrepresent the older girl as an elite beach volleyball player.

The five-month term, handed down by U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, came short of the 21 months that federal prosecutors had requested. They wanted an enhancement for what they called an abuse of trust, saying Janavs used her status as trustee of her daughters’ school, Sage Hill School in Newport Beach, “to insulate herself from the fraud.”

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The school wouldn’t ask questions if she switched her daughter’s test location to a school where Singer had bribed an administrator, Janavs told Singer in a recorded phone call, assuring him, “They can’t say anything to me.”

Janavs, the 15th parent sentenced in the admissions scandal, was among four parents who reversed their not-guilty pleas last year after learning they likely would be charged with bribery.

One, Douglas Hodge of Laguna Beach, was sentenced earlier this month to nine months in prison. Hodge, former chief executive of Newport Beach-based investment management firm PIMCO, conspired with Singer to get four of his children into USC and Georgetown as bogus athletic recruits at a cost of $850,000.

The two others, Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez, will be sentenced next month. Prosecutors have asked Gorton to commit them to prison for 26 and 18 months, respectively.

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In court papers filed before Janavs’ sentencing, her attorneys said Singer, who has pleaded guilty to four felonies and cooperated with the government, made Janavs believe USC was the ideal school for her daughter, then convinced Janavs “that cheating was the only way for her to get in.”

Janavs arranged with Singer to have his Harvard-educated accomplice, Mark Riddell, fix her older daughter’s ACT exam. The girl took her test in 2017 at a private school in West Hollywood whose administrator, Igor Dvorskiy, allowed Singer and Riddell to tamper with exams in exchange for bribes. Riddell and Dvorskiy have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government. Riddell netted Janavs’ older daughter a top-flight score, and Janavs paid Singer’s sham foundation $50,000.

Two years later, Janavs mailed Singer a $25,000 check and texted him that she wanted her younger daughter to receive a 33 or 34 out of 36 on her ACT. Riddell notched a 34, and Janavs wired Singer another $25,000. She was arrested a month later, “handcuffed at gunpoint” by FBI agents, her attorneys wrote in court papers.

Janavs’ attorneys asked Gorton to spare her prison altogether. Janavs conspired with Singer for a shorter time, and paid him much less, than many of his other clients, they said. She did not need to be incarcerated to deter others from committing similar crimes in the future, they wrote.

“Michelle’s path from well-respected mother and philanthropist to scorned felon is on display for everyone to see,” they wrote.

In a letter to the judge, Janavs said she had never thought seeing her children attend a top university was “the end all, be all.”

She even gave a Malcolm Gladwell book to the director of college counseling at her daughters’ school, she wrote, and “suggested that he encourage every parent to read chapter three, which discusses how sending a child to an elite school for the sake of the name” could hurt a child’s confidence.

“But when the time came for me to play by the rules,” she said, “I cheated.”

Matthew Ormseth writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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