By Elena Shao
Former Stanford head sailing coach John Vandemoer, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering in the multi-million dollar college admissions cheating scandal, has been recommended a 13-month prison sentence by federal prosecutors in a sentencing memorandum filed in Boston federal court on Friday morning. Vandemoer is expected to be the first coach to be sentenced in the scandal.
In advance of his June 12 sentencing hearing, Vandemoer’s own sentencing memorandum makes the case for probation given that he did not personally pocket any money. Despite taking this into account in assessing the moral culpability of Vandemoer’s offense, the prosecutors maintain that prison time is necessary.
“It is also the only way to begin restoring confidence in a college admissions system that most people agree is needlessly unfair,” their memorandum reads.
The recommended sentence is shorter than the 15 to 21 months former University of Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center could face for accepting $100,000 in bribes. The term is also five months shorter than the 18 month sentence initially suggested in the coach’s March 12 plea agreement. Even then, the prosecutors’ recommendation was below the Court’s “guideline range” calculation of 33 to 41 months.
Prosecutors believe that a proportional and just punishment for Vandemoer specifically would not require a sentence within that guideline range, “insofar as the defendant has otherwise led a law-abiding life, did not profit financially from his crimes, promptly accepted responsibility for them, appears genuinely remorseful, and is unlikely to reoffend.”
While Vandemoer did not personally pocket any of the money, prosecutors contend that he benefited from the money indirectly by placing it in accounts he controlled for the sailing program, thereby enhancing his career prospects.
Specifically, the memorandum submitted by Vandemoer’s attorney notes that the funds were deposited into accounts for team uniforms and equipment, and the salary of an assistant coach, but did not pay for meals, lodging or reimbursements for petty charges. According to the memorandum, Vandemoer had to “seek and receive approval to spend this money from six different approvers” ranging from the accounting office to an associate athletic director.
“There is no allegation that these funds were spent in any improper way,” wrote Vandemoer’s attorneys. “Mr. Vandemoer’s intent, while misguided, was to help the sailing program he loved.”
The defendant’s sentencing memorandum also includes excerpts of letters from Vandemoer’s family, former members of the sailing team and their parents speaking to his “high moral character,” integrity as a coach and “devotion to the sailing program.”
Vandemoer’s attorneys also claim that the University, as the victim of the college admissions bribery scheme, has “lost no money” and in fact “received money it would have otherwise not received” — although, his attorneys note, this does not suggest Vandemoer believes Stanford to be “better off” off because of his actions.
However, prosecutors maintain that Stanford has suffered “cognizable harm” from Vandemoer’s actions. According to the prosecution, the University “loses money on every student it admits” since tuition does not fully cover the cost of attending the University, and it incurred costs from conducting an internal investigation.
Prosecutors also suggest that Stanford has not only already suffered significant reputational harm from the mere disclosure of the scheme, but had the scheme itself succeeded, the University would have faced further harm from admitting unqualified students, “which would over time reduce the perceived value of a Stanford education.”
Vandemoer’s attorneys Robert Fisher and R. Scott Seitz wrote in the defendant Vandemoer’s sentencing memorandum that incarceration is “no way” necessary to deter the former coach from repeating the offense, given that Vandemoer was not only a first-time offender, but one that has been subject to heavy “collateral consequences.” The disgraced sailing coach has been a focus of intense, widely-publicized scrutiny, they argue, and has since lost his University housing, his job, and likely the ability to be hired by a university again in the future.
“It is hard to imagine there is a college coach in the country who does not know what Mr. Vandemoer did and understands the consequences of those actions,” he wrote. “No rational coach would decide to do it, regardless of whether Mr. Vandemoer is incarcerated.”
Yet, prosecutors maintain that incarceration is “nonetheless needed” both as punishment and as deterrence to prevent similarly situated individuals from abusing their power for personal benefit.
“Entrusted with the responsibility and discretion to recruit elite sailors to the sailing team of one of the world’s premier universities, the defendant secretly abused that position of trust by twisting it to his own advantage.”
Vandemoer pleaded guilty on March 12 to accepting bribes funneled through a fraudulent college preparatory business known as Key Worldwide Foundation run by William Rick Singer, in exchange for agreeing to recommend applicants as recruits to the sailing team without regard for their actual athletic ability or sailing experience.
According to University spokesperson E.J. Miranda, the total amount of money received by the sailing program in connection to the scheme was $770,000 across three applicants — one who was denied admission, one who ultimately enrolled at Brown University, and a third student who attended Stanford up until her admission was rescinded in late March. The billionaire Chinese family of the third student allegedly paid the largest known sum in the scandal at $6.5 million to secure her admission to the University. Initially, in exchange for the bribes, the family would “endow” the sailing coaches’ salaries.
The University reiterated in a statement on May 1 that the $500,000 contribution from the third student, who was admitted through the regular application process, was actually received months after she was admitted to Stanford and wrote that the money itself played “no role” in her admission. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen, however, has said that she was admitted “partly due to” fabricated sailing credentials, though Vandemoer said that he did not help the student’s application in any “material way.”
Despite this, prosecutors argue that Vandemoer’s actions “deceived and defrauded the university that employed him.”
“[Vandemoer] validated a national cynicism over college admissions by helping wealthy and unscrupulous applicants enjoy an unjust advantage over those who either lack deep pockets or are simply unwilling to cheat to get ahead,” they wrote in the memorandum.