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February 19, 2022

Trial penalties lead to longest (but still not so long) sentences for two Varsity Blues defendants

It has been a while since I have blogged about the Varsity Blues case and the sentences given to the high net-worth individuals who were federally prosecuted (though some of lots and lots of prior blogging can be found below).  However, four months ago I noted in a post the fate of a couple defendants who did not plead guilty and I asked "With two defendants now convicted after trial, how steep might the "trial penalty" be in the Varsity Blues cases?".  This week we got an answer to that question through two sentencings reported in this Bloomberg piece headlined, "‘Varsity Blues’ Dad Gets Longest Sentence in Scandal Yet."  Here are the basics:

A private equity investor convicted in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal received a 15-months prison sentence, the longest meted out to date.  John B. Wilson was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Boston after being convicted last year of paying more than $1.2 million to get his three children into elite colleges.  He was also ordered to pay a $200,000 fine and $88,546 in restitution.

Wilson’s sentencing comes about week after former Wynn Resorts Ltd. executive Gamal Abdelaziz was ordered to spend a year and a day in prison.  Before Abdelaziz, the highest sentence handed out in the case had been the nine months given to former Pimco Chief Executive Officer Douglas Hodge.  Unlike Hodge and dozens of others charged in the case, however, Wilson and Abdelaziz chose to contest their charges at trial.  A jury found them guilty in October.

Prosecutors had asked for Wilson to be sentenced to 21 months behind bars, saying he still refused to accept responsibility for his crimes.  Wilson asked for 6 months, saying he deeply regretted his participation in the scheme orchestrated by disgraced college counselor William “Rick” Singer.

Helpfully, DOJ has assembled here all the cases charged and sentenced in the Varsity Blues investigation, and a quick scan reveals that the vast majority of the defendants who pleaded guilty received sentences of four month or less.  So one might reasonably assert that the choice to exercise their rights to trial contributed to Abdelaziz getting roughly three times, and Wilson getting roughly four times, the prison sentence given to the average Varsity Blues defendant who pleaded guilty.  That can be viewed as a pretty hefty trial penalty. 

And yet, because no mandatory minimum sentencing provisions or big guideline enhancements were in play (and perhaps because of the high-profile nature of these cases), the extent of the "trial penalty" as measured in extra prison time imposed is a lot less for these Varsity Blues defendants than for other federal defendants in a lot of other settings.  A 2013 Human Rights Watch report calculated that "in 2012, the average sentence of federal drug offenders convicted after trial was three times higher (16 years) than that received after a guilty plea (5 years and 4 months)."  Three times higher in the federal drug sentencing context can often mean decades of more prison time; three times higher for Abdelaziz and Wilson is a matter of months. 

Still, I cannot help but wonder what the decision to go to trial cost Abdelaziz and Wilson in other respects, e.g., attorneys fees, personal and professional stigma and uncertainty.  Exercising trial rights can be quite costly for defendants even without accounting for the longer (sometimes much longer) sentence that will almost always follow.  

A few of many prior posts on other defendants in college admissions scandal:

February 19, 2022 at 12:49 PM | Permalink


It's not a "trial penalty." It's that the sentencing court correctly thinks that the defendants' willful, persistent and belligerent dishonesty in asserting their non-existent innocence bodes poorly for their rehabilitative prospects. Defendants who show at least some understanding of the wrongfulness of their behavior deserve, and routinely receive, lighter sentences. These defendants didn't show anything like that (but still got off with not that much).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 19, 2022 3:26:00 PM

Am I the only one here who believes people should be sentenced only for what they do, not for how sorry they claim to be about having done it? A trial isn't a right if there's a penalty attached. Would you say you had a right to vote if you'd go to jail for months if you exercised that right? You wouldn't be physically prevented from voting, but a cop with handcuffs would be waiting for you right outside the voting booth.

Posted by: Keith Lynch | Feb 19, 2022 5:38:19 PM

"attorneys fees, personal and professional stigma and uncertainty"

Oh, don't cry for me Argentina!

"First they came for the mutual fund CEOs, PE investors, and multinational casino executives who committed bribery and fraud and I did not speak out because I was not a mutual fund CEO, PE investor, or multinational casino executive who committed bribery or fraud.


Then they never did come for me after all."

Posted by: kotodama | Feb 19, 2022 5:47:25 PM

Keith Lynch ,

There is no penalty attached to going to trial. Instead there is (generally) leniency for admitting guilt. I admit the "trial penalty" framing gets much more press, but that doesn't mean its correct.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 20, 2022 2:57:09 AM

The distinction between trial penalty and plea reward is to an extent arbitrary, like the distinction between a store having a financial penalty for shopping without a privacy-destroying "rewards card" and it having a reward for having one. But it's not completely arbitrary, since we can compare the current sentences with those before plea bargaining became ubiquitous, and current prices (adjusted for inflation) with those before the store had a "loyalty card." Or we can just note that prison capacity is limited and that stores have to make a profit. Both of which lead to a conclusion that the "penalty" narrative is more accurate in both cases.

But even if you disagree, does it really make sense to reward people, both guilty and innocent, for being skilled actors? And to reward innocent people for falsely claiming to be guilty?

Again, I think people should be punished only for what is proven in a fair trial that they did. Not for how sorry they claim to be about it, or for whether they claim to have found Jesus while in jail, or whether they have (or claim to have) a drug addiction to blame for their crimes, or how many other people they agree to testify against (perhaps falsely), or for not being able to afford a competent defense.

Posted by: Keith Lynch | Feb 20, 2022 7:29:28 AM

It makes sense to reward people for easing burdens on the system, and it makes sense that the earlier they do so the greater that reward is. I generally discount the expression of remorse part of this, the remorse is that they got caught, not that they did it.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 20, 2022 12:01:52 PM

@Soronel: I think you're downplaying remorse unfairly. Have you not ever done anything wrong you truly regretted? Maybe not criminally so, but the effect is the same. Whether judges can distinguish true remorse from "sorry I got caught" remorse is a different question — I don't know if they can.

What is interesting about these cases is that they were federal crimes at all. They fall in the class of crimes that I would rather see prosecuted at the state level.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 21, 2022 10:00:10 AM

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