The summer of 2011 was a fascinating time to be working in the USC athletic department. The university had a new president, C.L. Max Nikias, who was in the process of kicking off an unprecedented $6-billion fundraising campaign. Nikias had hired a new athletic director, former Trojan quarterback great Pat Haden, to rebuild the school’s image and restock the coffers of Heritage Hall in the aftermath of the Reggie Bush scandal.
Quietly, in the middle of this transition period, a little-known athletic department coordinator who was actively involved in coordinating the admissions process for incoming USC athletes received a promotion. Donna Heinel was to assume the position of senior woman administrator, a role developed by the NCAA for institutions to promote female involvement in high-level decisions.
She had come far since joining athletics as a Student-Athlete Academic Services staff member in 2003, and in her official statement released by USC on July 1, 2011, she sounded invigorated by the opportunity that she said “Pat Haden, Max Nikias and USC ... bestowed on me” to operate at this moment in the university’s history.
“We are pushing through some challenging times right now,” Heinel said, “but I think just like a person or entity, our department is going through a stage right now full of life lessons and resiliency. … We will get through this. And everyone around the nation will see the power of the Trojan Spirit.”
Heinel appeared primed and ready to be a guiding light. She already had started a consulting firm on the side, Clear the Clearinghouse, which offered advice to high school counselors, parents and prospective athletes about how to manage the NCAA clearinghouse’s minimum eligibility requirements.
“She knew her stuff,” recalled Vicky Eagleson, a retired La Habra High School counselor who once attended one of Heinel’s workshops. “She was well-received by parents and students.”
That Heinel emerged as the only senior athletic department administrator indicted in the $25-million racketeering college admissions conspiracy announced Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Boston came as a shock to those who saw her as someone giving instruction on how to do things the right way.
Nearly eight years after assuming a powerful role as a top lieutenant to Haden and later Lynn Swann, Heinel was arrested by authorities and fired by USC Tuesday for her alleged role in using relaxed admission standards, designed for talented athletes, as a “side door” into the university for students whose test scores and transcripts were not exemplary enough for admission on their own.
Heinel’s alleged abuse of her reputation as an athletic admissions expert was hard to fathom for Eagleson on Wednesday.
“It was not the person we worked with,” Eagleson said. “I’m stunned. I could almost weep.”
A Philadelphia native and 1983 cum laude graduate and All-America swimmer at Springfield (Mass.) College, Heinel, 57, worked as an assistant water polo and swim coach at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1999 as she completed her master’s degree in exercise physiology. In 2000, she was promoted to UMass’ head women’s water polo coach.
Then-USC athletic director Mike Garrett oversaw her hiring in 2003, and by 2008, she had started Clear the Clearinghouse as “an essential resource for high school coaches, counselors and administrators.”
Heinel would travel to high school campuses throughout Southern California to conduct workshops keeping her clients up to date “with changing rules and regulations pertaining to academic and amateurism certification, recruitment, financial aid and compliance,” according to the company’s website.
A decade into her venture, Heinel would offer subscription packages worth $300 (silver), $500 (gold) and $700 (platinum).
“You’re talking about a process that is relatively simple. Most schools provide that free of charge,” said B. David Ridpath, a former college athletics administrator who is now an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University and president-elect of the Drake Group, which promotes NCAA reform. “I probably did a dozen or so of those things per year, and it never once occurred to me that I would charge.”
The consulting business could also be seen as an ethical lapse with Heinel using her stature as a high-ranking USC athletics administrator for outside profit.
“If anything, the optics are horrible, and, at worst, I do think it’s a conflict of interest,” Ridpath said.
Ridpath said a business such as Clear the Clearinghouse would traditionally need to be approved by the athletic director. A USC spokesman declined to address Heinel’s consulting activity.
She wasn’t hiding her side gig. As of last fall, the Clear the Clearinghouse website was advertising a workshop planned for Oct. 9, 2018, that would be held in the Founders’ Room at USC’s Galen Center.
It is unclear whether Heinel held that October workshop. It was around that time that, according to the 200-page complaint released Tuesday by authorities, Heinel’s alleged bribery scheme with a Newport Beach-based college counseling business known as the Key was beginning to fall apart.
In April 2018, a high school guidance counselor had noticed that a boy had been accepted to USC as a water polo recruit even though the high school did not have a water polo team. Word of this reached the USC director of admissions. But Heinel allegedly emailed the director a fabricated story stating that the boy had played internationally during the summer in Europe, where he had connected with then-USC head coach Jovan Vavic, who was also charged in the bribery scheme and fired by USC on Tuesday.
“He is small, but he has a long torso but short strong legs plus he is fast which helps him win the draws to start play after goals are scored,” Heinel wrote in an email to the director about the boy.
The director responded, “Thanks, for this. If you don’t mind, I’ll pass an edited/paraphrased version of your note along to the school, to assure them we’re looking at this stuff. They seemed unusually skeptical.”
In late July, a USC academic advisor began asking questions of another student who had been admitted to the school as a pole vault recruit for the Trojans track and field program, asking him why he wasn’t practicing with the team. Heinel had allegedly presented the USC athletic admissions subcommittee with a fabricated athlete profile for him that included a picture of another individual doing the pole vault.
When the advisor asked the student, he said there must have been a mistake. He was not a member of the track team. When the student’s parents brought this to the attention of a corroborating witness, he assured them that Heinel, who was allegedly paid $250,000 for getting the boy into school, would take care of it.
The witness, a founder of the Key who chose to cooperate with the government investigation for a more lenient sentence, told the parents, “I got Donna to squash the whole thing.”