'Varsity Blues' Mom Cites Pandemic In Bid To Avoid Prison

By Chris Villani
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Law360 (March 26, 2020, 9:45 PM EDT) -- A California mother who pled guilty to agreeing to pay a $400,000 bribe in the "Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal argued Thursday that she should not be sent to prison, citing a U.S. Department of Justice memo urging the use of home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal prosecutors have said Elizabeth Henriquez should spend 26 months behind bars. Her lawyers wrote in Thursday's sentencing memorandum that they initially were going to seek the five-month prison term handed down to fellow defendant Michelle Janavs, but have changed course due to the pandemic.

Her legal team cited a memo Attorney General William Barr wrote to the Bureau of Prisons that advocated for home confinement "where appropriate" for nonviolent offenders.

"Placing Elizabeth into the federal prison population at the present time presents significant health risks," the sentencing memo states.

Henriquez is in her 50s and has underlying health conditions, her lawyers noted.

"Moreover, given the operational challenges that the COVID-19 crisis is presenting for the Bureau of Prisons, it makes little sense to add a first-time, non-violent offender such as Elizabeth to the current prison population," the memorandum states.

Henriquez grew up in Massachusetts before moving to California and marrying Manuel Henriquez, who was the chairman and chief executive of Hercules Capital. Manuel Henriquez has also pled guilty in connection with the high-profile case and is slated to be sentenced in April.

Elizabeth Henriquez is due to be sentenced Tuesday. Prosecutors say the couple agreed to pay the "Varsity Blues" scheme's mastermind, William "Rick" Singer, $400,000 to have the Georgetown University tennis coach, Gordon Ernst, falsely designate their daughter as a recruit.

But Henriquez argued Thursday that she thought the money was a donation to the tennis program, something her legal team said is highlighted in newly unearthed FBI notes that suggest federal investigators pressed Singer to make it seem like the parents believed they were paying bribes.

"Evidence that the government has disclosed over the past few weeks confirms that Rick Singer initially lured Elizabeth into his criminal web by convincing her to make a charitable donation to the Georgetown Tennis program, in exchange for Coach Ernst agreeing to use his influence with the university's admissions committee on Elizabeth's daughter's behalf," the memorandum states.

"The government agrees that Elizabeth's understanding at all times was that the $400,000 donation was going entirely to the Georgetown Tennis program's institutional account, rather than into the personal pocket of a corrupt coach or university administrator — a circumstance that distinguishes Elizabeth from many other indicted parents, including parents that this court already has sentenced," Henriquez's legal team added.

Ernst has also been charged in the case and was fired by Georgetown. The parents who are still duking it out with the government cited the recently unearthed FBI notes Wednesday in a scathing motion to dismiss the indictment.

Those parents blasted the government for "misconduct," saying Singer was effectively told to lie in order to make it seem like the parents knew they were bribing coaches all along to get their kids into universities as fake athletic recruits when, in reality, he was telling the parents the six-figure sums they paid were legitimate donations.

The government also claims the Henriquezes used Singer to help their two daughters cheat on college entrance exams. The couple paid him $25,000 and had Mark Riddell, a test-taking whiz who has also copped a plea in the case, proctor one of the daughter's SAT II subject tests, feeding her answers and celebrating the fraud with the girl and Elizabeth Henriquez on the ride home after the test, the government claims.

On another occasion, in exchange for fraudulently inflating their younger daughter's test scores, prosecutors say Manuel Henriquez agreed to use his influence at Boston's Northeastern University to help secure the admission of another of Singer's students, whose parents paid Singer $250,000.

Henriquez's counsel declined to comment further on Thursday and a government representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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

Elizabeth Henriquez is represented by Aaron M. Katz, Colleen A. Conry and Laura Gaffney Hoey of Ropes & Gray 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 Daniel King.

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

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