Q&A: UCLA law professor explains legal implications of college admissions scandal
An admissions scheme unveiled Tuesday involved parents paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a UCLA soccer coach to help their children gain admission to UCLA. (Liz Ketcham/Assistant Photo editor)
March 14, 2019 12:20 a.m.
This post was updated March 14 at 12:05 p.m.
Jorge Salcedo, the UCLA men’s soccer coach, and other coaches at other universities were involved in a bribery scheme that included facilitation of cheating on college entrance exams and fabrication of false athlete profiles. The implicated individuals were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Sherod Thaxton, a UCLA law professor, sat down with the Daily Bruin’s Maddie Ostergaard to discuss the legal implications of the scandal, who is likely to be prosecuted and to what extent.
Daily Bruin: It seems like most of the parents in this case were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Can you explain if this a common charge in situations like this and, if found guilty, how severe the punishment could be?
Sherod Thaxton: The (Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations) conspiracy is one of the most commonly used charges when you have a racketeering charge. This is conducting illegal affairs through a business. … What happens is RICO conspiracy is such a powerful special conspiracy statute for two reasons: One, it’s easier to prove than normal conspiracy statutes; two, it carries the same penalty whether or not the crime was completed.
When we typically say mail fraud or wire fraud, a person was trying to cheat another person out of money or property. But sometimes, you’re not trying to cheat someone out of money. Here what you have is they weren’t necessarily cheating the university out of money, (the accused) were getting kickbacks for these kids to get admitted. What’s important there is it was a bribery kickback scheme.
DB: What is the difference between mail fraud and other kinds of fraud?
ST: This is a federal crime and the way this works is it’s the use of the mail. Mail fraud means you either use physical mail … or electronic mail, email, called wire, and that’s important to perpetuate the scheme. What was central to help them effectuate the scheme was that they were using mail and wire, and that was important in communicating to organize this scheme.
DB: Can you explain the difference between honest services mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud?
ST: Honest services fraud is a type of mail fraud. For mail fraud, you can get a penalty of up to 20 years if you’re engaged in the mail fraud. For conspiracy to commit mail fraud, there would be a lower penalty. For conspiracy to commit RICO, you would not have to actually prove the person committed the offense. You would have to prove that they conspired or basically agreed to commit the offense, and you still get that 20-year maximum. So, you have to prove less and you still get the same penalty.
DB: The soccer coach at UCLA was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering. Can you explain what this means?
ST: Racketeering is using a business to do your dirty work. When people think about racketeering, oftentimes they think about organized crime, but really any organization … to help you commit crimes whether that be the mob or a corrupt corporation, but it’s really using a form of business to basically earn illegal money. So if you’re a coach, you’re working for the university, but the way you get illegal money through the kickbacks is using admissions to the university and your official duties to get money.
The enterprise here was the nonprofit (Key Worldwide Foundation) led by (William Singer) and the (Edge College & Career Network, LLC).
DB: How severe could the punishment for this be?
ST: You’re looking at up to 20 years with a RICO conspiracy. But it’s 20 years per count so you can aggregate charges to be more than 20 years. Rarely is that the case, but it can be more than 20 years. I can’t speak on the parents but if you look at the indictment on the coaches, the main indictment that the (United States Department of Justice) has available, all of the different employees that were associated with the college admissions outfit and the person who was president of the tennis academy and the coaches, they’re all charged here under the RICO conspiracy. The monetary fines they have to give back would vary based on how much they received in the scheme.
DB: Are the students implicated in this investigation at any legal risk?
ST: I think it’s possible but it’s going to depend on their level of knowledge and involvement in the scheme. You know that there’s some lying going on but you can’t say, “Oh the students were lying, therefore they’re criminal.” With these white-collar crimes there’s a lot of overlapping statutes. … You have to know you were doing something wrong or you knew what you were doing. Those requirements depend on what the person is charged with.
DB: If these students were going to soccer practice, knowing that they weren’t soccer players, do you think the students could feasibly argue they didn’t know what their parents were doing?
ST: The issue with the defendants is not just that they were helping the kids with the test, but they were helping the kids with the test to get them into school. If you cheat on a test in school, you might get kicked out, but there’s no criminal charges if you got caught cheating on your final. That’s not criminal, that’s administrative, there’s no prosecutor charging you.
You can’t just focus on a student knew that a lie was going on. Yes, they were living a lie, but then living a lie doesn’t necessarily make you criminally liable.
DB: Is there a chance that the federal courts could try to make an example of the parents or coaches in this case?
ST: Your answer would be as good as mine. You have two things going on, right, you have individuals, specifically you have celebrities that have a lot of money and a lot of resources, so they’re going to be able to fight this stuff pretty well if they want to, but we’re also in this current climate where admissions are these highly coveted places. There’s this huge premium on getting to the right schools and how that impacts people’s futures, so you can imagine this really offends the public.
The way it captures public imagination, there could be some pressure to go ahead and pursue these cases, not to mention we also had the recent Harvard affirmative action case, so this is in the news.
It’s not a simple, “Okay, she took a spot from someone who would have gotten a scholarship.” The issue is, there’s also someone who could have contributed to the team, who would have gotten admissions preference because of athletics. She took a slot from someone who had athletic ability, that athletic ability would have merit them admission to UCLA.
DB: Is there anything else that you want to comment on?
ST: As I said before, it’s very interesting to think about how we believe we are in a society that rewards merit. Even though merit can be problematically defined, we believe in rewards of merit. What we’re seeing though, is we have all types of ways that individuals who don’t appear to be meritorious … getting admitted to elite schools. And what this does is make us reevaluate the problems we have with admission. Not only is it subjectivity because there are already so many qualified people, but in addition to that, admission preferences for individuals who are not good enough to get a scholarship. But there are certain mechanisms so that people who have money can get their kids in school. It emphasizes just how entrenched and ingrained money is either directly or indirectly in the admission process. If you do not have money, you are disadvantaged even if you are otherwise meritorious.