NOEL KING, HOST:
Today we'll see the first sentencing in the college admissions scandal. A former sailing coach at Stanford admits he took money from wealthy parents who were hoping to get their kids into Stanford. Prosecutors want a prison sentence that is long enough to help restore faith in what they call a rigged system. But the coach is arguing for zero time behind bars. NPR's Tovia Smith has that story.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Coaches like John Vandemoer were the key to the so-called side door that so many students nationwide slipped through. Coaches on the take would use special slots meant for star athletic recruits and sell them to the highest bidders. Often, students weren't even athletes. Doctored photos just made them appear to be. In Vandemoer's case, he's pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy for agreeing to $610,000 in quid pro quos. Prosecutors say he not only defrauded Stanford but also, quote, "validated a national cynicism over college admissions."
PATRICK COTTER: Yeah. You'll never be able to truly calculate the harm done when people learn that, you know what? It's a rigged game. That's a terrible crime on society.
SMITH: That's former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter.
COTTER: We'll never know how many kids gave up trying to get into good schools, saying to themselves, I'm not going to make the effort because some rich kid's just going to buy his way in ahead of me. So why bother?
SMITH: But Vandemoer's lawyers are seeking leniency, saying he's the least culpable of all defendants since he never pocketed any money for himself. It all went to the sailing team. Vandemoer's intent, while misguided, defense attorneys say, was just to help the sailing program he loved. Besides, they add, for various reasons, no student ever actually got into Stanford because of Vandemoer. He dearly regrets his terrible mistake, lawyers say. And they sent the judge some 30 letters from supporters extolling Vandemoer's honesty and integrity, hoping he gets only probation. Attorney Cotter says that's unlikely.
COTTER: There's a lot of work here for the attorneys to do. You know, they're sailing into a headwind. You know, if it was put up to a vote, (laughter) the public would probably send all these people to jail for 20 years.
SMITH: Indeed, prosecutors have a mountain of damning evidence against coaches and parents, plus test proctors and test-takers who fraudulently boosted kids' SAT and ACT scores, all under the direction of the mastermind, Rick Singer. He's pleaded guilty to four counts of racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice, which could mean 65 years in prison. But he's hoping his sentence will be cut because he's cooperating with the government to help build cases against others, including parents who used to be his clients. Many have already pleaded guilty, including actress Felicity Huffman and New York attorney Gordon Caplan, who've each expressed deep regret and shame.
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GORDON CAPLAN: I'm really sorry to my daughter, who I love more than anything in the world, knew nothing about this.
SMITH: But other parents, including actress Lori Loughlin, have dug in their heels. Attorney Martin Weinberg represents two different parents who've pleaded not guilty.
MARTIN WEINBERG: Donations that are made on an everyday basis by parents of students to universities, you know, we contend were not bribes but were instead donations.
SMITH: Meantime, Stanford says it wants nothing to do with that money, no matter what you call it. Stanford considers it tainted, and it says it's redirecting it for the public good. The school did not weigh in on how much time Vandemoer deserves when he's sentenced later today.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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