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Parents implicated in college admissions scandal turn to pricey outside consultants in attempt to receive lighter sentences

Some parents pleading guilty are paying consultants, doctors, and criminologists for defense help

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A handful of parents who pleaded guilty in the nationwide college admissions scandal are now putting their money toward expensive outside consultants, doctors and criminologists in the hopes of securing lenient sentences, the New York Times reported on Thursday. 

In attempts to make judge and jury sympathetic to their clients, some parents’ lawyers have submitted elaborate presentations like Hollywood-style videos of their past charitable work and long reports connecting childhood hardships to susceptibility to manipulation in the scandal. 

So far, these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. 

“I maybe should say to you, before I get nine more of these: I don’t feel I need an expert report from a criminologist to tell me how to rule here, particularly where it’s the same criminologist that’s going to be probably presenting for everybody in L.A.,” Massachusetts Judge Indira Talwani — who is sentencing most of the parents who have pleaded guilty — warned in a statement to other defendants who have yet to be sentenced. 

In one instance, Los Angeles businessman Devin Sloane — who paid $250,000 to scandal ringleader William “Rick” Singer for his son to be admitted to the University of Southern California as a fraudulent water polo recruit — proposed in an elaborately edited video that he could atone for his misdeeds by fundraising for a “cutting-edge” collaboration between the Special Olympics and private schools wherein disabled children play sports with elite students. The video — wrought with montages of athletes rejoicing in victory — featured a gold medalist describing Sloane as “my neighbor and best friend.” Sloane was sentenced to four months in prison. 

Talwani described his proposal as “about as tone-deaf as I’ve heard.”

In another instance, Los Angeles businessman Stephen Semprevivo — who paid $400,000 for his son’s admission to Georgetown as a sham tennis recruit — hired a court consultant and criminologist to draft a report on how his difficult childhood led him to being easily susceptible to manipulation in the admissions scheme. Semprevivo will also serve a four-month prison sentence. 

Semprevivo’s criminologist claimed that she focuses on rehabilitation and humanization by trying to get defendants into community-service projects or treatment programs prior to sentencing. “I’m helping somebody rebuild their life, whether or not they are incarcerated,” she said. 

According to the New York Times, other parents have obtained doctors’ letters and submitted them under seal, as well as hired consultants to tell their life stories. Generally, these stories have centered around the reputational damage the defendants have suffered. 

The practice of hiring consultants to help out with criminal sentencings is legal and not uncommon. Lawyers for poor defendants sometimes submit similar reports and videos to help mitigate prison time. Former federal prosecutor Harry Sandick told the New York Times that these types of materials can help provide important context and give judges fuller pictures of defendants. The risk is that they could backfire, with the efforts viewed as attempts to manipulate the judge. 

Agustin Huneeus, a Napa Valley vintner implicated in both the test cheating and athletics bribery schemes, will be sentenced on Friday. In contrast to Sloane and Semprevivo, his lawyers emphasized that he “has not hired experts (psychologists, criminologists or others) to explain or contextualize his conduct.”

Contact Claire Wang at clwang32 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Claire Wang is The Daily's Vol. 254 magazine editor, and previously served as Vol. 253's managing editor of news. She's a fan of anything with tomatoes in it, and her favorite poet is Ocean Vuong. When she's not biking, her second-favorite mode of transportation is by rollerblade. Contact Claire at clwang32 'at' stanford.edu.