‘Varsity Blues’ defense lawyers grill California father turned cooperator

– A California father testified on Tuesday in the first trial in the U.S. college admissions fraud scandal that the mastermind behind the vast scheme to help children fraudulently get into top schools made clear parents had to follow “his way of doing business.”

But while Bruce Isackson admitted he paid $600,000 to have William (Rick) Singer help get his daughters into universities through illegitimate means, he said he did not know how Singer dealt with two other parents now on trial, Gamal Aziz and John Wilson.

“I have no idea what he was doing with other parents,” he said.

Prosecutors say Aziz, a former Wynn Resorts Ltd executive, and Wilson, the founder of real estate and private equity firm Hyannis Port Capital Inc, paid Singer to secure spots for their children at schools as fake athletic recruits through bribery.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.

They are the first of 57 people charged in the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation to face trial. Forty-six have pleaded guilty, including Singer, actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and 31 other wealthy parents, including Isackson.

He pleaded guilty in 2019, admitting he turned to Singer to help his daughters gain admission to the University of California Los Angeles and University of Southern California as athletic recruits and to rig one’s college entrance exam.

“Without Singer’s help, your state of mind at the time was clear your daughters could not get into the colleges they were applying to?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank asked.

“That’s correct, well, those specific schools,” Isackson said.

But under questioning by a lawyer for Aziz, Brian Kelly of Nixon Peabody, Isackson acknowledged Singer could be cagey about the details of his scheme.

When Isackson, concerned about a purported tax audit of a charity Singer ran that prosecutors said was part of the scheme, pressed him on whether any money was used to pay college athletic officials, Singer, in a recording he took at the direction of investigators, was evasive.

“I wanted him to tell me, admit, that he actually gave money to people,” he said. “He was clever about not doing that.”

Defense lawyers sought in questioning to make clear Isackson did not know their clients or what Singer told them.

Isackson said he had never heard of Aziz, and forgot his first name at one point while testifying. He said he went once to a school event at Wilson’s then-home in California, but said had he no substantive conversations with him.

Prosecutors later during the trial played excerpts of wire taps of phone calls between Singer and some of his wealthy clients.

Those calls included ones with Gordon Caplan, the former co-chairman of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher who admitted to paying Singer $75,000 to rig his daughter’s ACT exam.

During the calls in 2018, Singer assured Caplan that other wealthy parents were also participating in his vast scheme to help their children get into colleges. “My families want a guarantee,” he said.

Caplan, later on another call, told Singer that “this feels a little weird.” But prosecutors say Caplan continued to participate in the scheme. He eventually served one month in prison after pleading guilty.

The case is United States v. Colburn, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, No. 19-cr-10080.

For the United States: Stephen Frank, Kristen Kearney, Leslie Wright, and Ian Stearns of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts

For Aziz: Brian Kelly, Joshua Sharp and Lauren Maynard of Nixon Peabody

For Wilson: Michael Kendall and Lauren Papenhausen of White & Case; and Andrew Tomback of McLaughlin & Stern