Feds, 'Varsity Blues' Parents Agree Virus Should Delay Trial

By Brian Dowling
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Law360 (July 16, 2020, 5:00 PM EDT) -- Federal prosecutors and a group of "Varsity Blues" parents want to delay the first trial in the college admissions case from its scheduled September start, citing witnesses who are caught in COVID-19 hotspots and risks that the Boston court will not be ready by then to handle such a large and "high-profile" jury proceeding.

In a Thursday court filing, lawyers in the Boston U.S. Attorney's Office told U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton that defense counsel for Robert Zangrillo, Homayoun Zadeh, John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz have assented to their request to move the first trial to late February 2021.

The majority of witnesses live in California, Texas and Georgia, where COVID-19 cases are currently spiking, complicating travel to and from those areas with a web of quarantines, government lawyers wrote in the filing.

"Witness preparation, therefore, will be exceedingly difficult and is likely to create safety concerns for individuals involved, some of whom are particularly susceptible to COVID-19," prosecutors said. "These conditions also appear likely to complicate the orderly flow of trial and make it difficult, if not impossible, to secure witness attendance."

It is also unclear whether the court will be able to hold jury trials by the fall date, prosecutors said.

"It appears unlikely that a high profile, four defendant trial — projected to last three to six weeks — will be feasible in the courthouse on September 29, 2020," prosecutors said in the filing. "Indeed, it is unclear whether and how the court could safely accommodate a jury venire large enough to ensure the selection of a trial jury with sufficient alternates."

Jury selection in the criminal case is scheduled to start on Sept. 29, with opening statements on Oct. 5.

The parents in the case are accused of falsely passing their children off as athletic recruits to get them into elite universities by paying bribes to school officials through admitted scheme mastermind William "Rick" Singer.

If Judge Gorton grants the request to postpone the trial, a second batch of parents currently set for a January trial will end up being the first to face a jury in the case, according to the filing. In that event, the defendants on trial would be Marci Palatella, William McGlashan Jr., Elisabeth Kimmel, I-Hsin Chen, Gregory Colburn and Amy Colburn.

Prosecutors are not currently asking the court to reschedule that trial. They added that if more defendants in the January group decide to plead guilty, it would be feasible to consolidate all the parents into a single trial.

In March, as the pandemic spread, Judge Gorton said the two "Varsity Blues" trials wouldn't be affected by a blanket 60-day extension of pretrial deadlines due to the virus.

A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts declined to comment on the filing.

Representatives for the defendants either declined to comment or were not immediately available for comment Thursday.

Also Thursday, Judge Gorton denied one of the defendants' many dismissal bids, this one attacking Massachusetts as the correct venue for the case.

Citing the court's previous decision that the case holds together as "a single overarching conspiracy," Judge Gorton said all it takes is a single act of the conspiracy in Massachusetts to land the case in the Bay State — a standard that prosecutors have met in their indictment of the parents.

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

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

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

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

Robert Zangrillo is represented by Matthew L. Schwartz of Boies Schiller Flexner, Nicholas C. Theodorou of Foley Hoag LLP, Martin G. Weinberg of the Law Offices of Martin G. Weinberg PC and Michael Pabian of Michael Pabian Law Office LLC.

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 Alyssa Miller.

Update: This story has been updated to include the denial of a defense motion to dismiss the case. 

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

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