1st 'Varsity Blues' Trial Date Remains Firm Despite Pandemic

By Chris Villani
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Law360 (May 29, 2020, 3:59 PM EDT) -- Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding when and how jury trials will resume in Massachusetts, a federal judge said Friday the first "Varsity Blues" college admissions fraud trial is still slated to begin in late September.

U.S. Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley told lawyers gathered on a video status conference that the presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, has not changed his view that the first trial in the high-profile case should stay on track to start picking a jury on Sept. 28, with opening statements Oct. 5.

"Unfortunately, no one can really see exactly how things are going to unfold this summer, but I will continue to tell you that Judge Gorton is very interested in having this trial take place in October and, at this time, that schedule is firm," Judge Kelley said. "So obviously, no one really knows down the road what's going to happen, but the goal is to have this jury trial when he has scheduled it."

Judge Gorton has been consistent in keeping schedules and pretrial motions practice on track for the case, even as deadlines in other cases have been extended.

Addressing attorneys for parents charged with bribing their children's ways into college, Judge Kelley said Friday those seeking documents from the University of Southern California, a nexus of the case, should serve their subpoenas soon, as her fellow judge is looking to keep the case moving forward.

"If you're going to be filing last-minute motions, you'll want to justify the timing of that when you do that," Judge Kelley warned.

The parents set to go to trial have argued they thought they were paying legitimate donations to the scheme's mastermind, William "Rick" Singer, rather than quid-pro-quo bribes to have their children admitted to USC and other schools.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, used that line of defense for more than a year before pleading guilty on May 22. They face two and five months in prison, respectively, per the terms of their plea agreements. Singer has also pled guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Even as the first trial remains on schedule, Judge Kelley acknowledged Friday that the pandemic has left a lot of details to be determined.

While the federal courts are open, Judge Kelley said there is not a "firm position" on when in-person hearings might be able to resume.

"The hope is that sometime in the fall we will be having jury trials," she said. "The court is working hard to try to balance the public safety issue with social distancing and how to arrange people in spaces, especially jurors. I think we will be conferring with experts on how to make the court a safe place for numbers of people."

If the current trial schedule stays in place, parents whose alleged fraud is connected to USC will go to trial in late September and the rest of the parents still fighting the allegations will be tried in January 2021. Coaches and school officials who are facing charges, including former USC official Donna Heinel, will be tried sometime in 2021.

In a separate filing on Friday, the parents looked to strike two paragraphs from the government's latest indictment. In those passages, prosecutors say Singer funneled $20,000 per month to Heinel so she would help with the scheme. But the parents say they had no idea what Singer was doing with money they gave to his charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation.

"The government admits that defendants were never told, did not know, and did not agree that their funds would be used to line Heinel's pockets," the motion argued. "The government admits that, instead, defendants were told, understood, and agreed that their funds would be used to support USC athletic programs."

Prosecutors have said it doesn't matter because the parents knew they were paying money to get their children into school through an illegal "side door."

The parents say that theory should "rise or fall" without the help of these claims, which they call misleading and prejudicial.

"The government should not be permitted to incorporate irrelevant and misleading allegations into the indictment as a 'backup plan' to ensure that even if its theory is ultimately rejected, the specter of money lining Heinel's pockets will cause such confusion and prejudice that it will nevertheless lead the jury to convict," the motion stated.

A government spokeswoman declined to comment on the defense motion Friday.

The government is represented by Eric S. Rosen, Justin D. O'Connell, Kristen A. Kearney, Leslie A. Wright, Karin M. Bell and Stephen E. Frank of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Elisabeth Kimmel is represented by R. Robert Popeo, Mark E. Robinson, Eóin P. Beirne and Cory S. Flashner of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo PC.

Diane and Todd Blake are represented by David E. Meier of Todd & Weld LLP and Stephen H. Sutro of Duane Morris LLP.

Gamal Abdelaziz is represented by Brian T. Kelly, Joshua C. Sharp and Lauren M. Maynard of Nixon Peabody LLP and by Robert Sheketoff.

I-Hsin Chen is represented by Reuben Camper Cahn, Jennifer L. Keller and Chase A. Scolnick of Keller Anderle LLP.

Amy and Gregory Colburn are represented by David S. Schumacher, Jordan R.C. Kearney and Patric Hooper of Hooper Lundy & Bookman PC.

Marci Palatella is represented by Allen J. Ruby, Jack P. DiCanio and Michael K. Loucks of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

Robert Zangrillo is represented by Matthew L. Schwartz of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP and Martin G. Weinberg of the Law Offices of Martin G. Weinberg PC.

William McGlashan Jr. is represented by Jack W. Pirozzolo and Joan M. Loughnane of Sidley Austin LLP and John C. Hueston and Marshall Camp of Hueston Hennigan LLP.

Homayoun Zadeh is represented by Tracy A. Miner and Megan A. Siddall of Miner Orkand Siddall LLP.

John Wilson is represented by Michael Kendall, Andrew E. Tomback and Yakov Malkiel of White & Case LLP.

USC is represented by Debra Wong Yang and Douglas Fuchs of Gibson Dunn and Anthony E. Fuller, Elizabeth Carr Pignatelli and William H. Kettlewell of Hogan Lovells LLP.

The case is U.S. v. Sidoo et al., case number 1:19-cr-10080, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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