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How One Father Allegedly Bribed His Son's Way Onto A College Water Polo Team


This week's college admissions scandal accused dozens of wealthy parents of going to wild lengths to get their kids into elite schools. One way was through college sports, using it as a kind of side door, even if their kids weren't athletes. Callum Borchers of member station WBUR in Boston has been looking into one of those cases, a Massachusetts businessman accused of faking his son's way into the University of Southern California, saying that his son would play water polo.

Callum, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


SHAPIRO: This parent's name is John Wilson. He founded a private equity firm, and before that, he was an executive at Staples. What did he allegedly do to get his son into USC?

BORCHERS: Well, he allegedly paid a $220,000 bribe through this college counselor who is at the center of the scandal. He's pleaded guilty. This is Rick Singer. And some of that money was funneled, allegedly, to the men's water polo coach at USC. And, critically, the coach just had to list him as one of his top walk-on recruits to make it easier for him to get in.

SHAPIRO: He didn't just list him as a top walk-on recruit. He made a really targeted lobbying effort. Like, what did he say about this kid that was totally made up?

BORCHERS: Well, the FBI affidavit, in support of the charges against Wilson, say that the claims were so specific as to say that this teenage kid could swim 50 yards in just 20 seconds, a full two seconds faster than anybody else on the team. He was going to be the fastest player. And I should note, Ari, this was a team that was coming off five straight national championships. So it was quite a claim.

SHAPIRO: And, in fact, the kid didn't play water polo at all.

BORCHERS: Well, it's not clear to me whether he didn't play at all. But he certainly was not at the level that would merit an offer from a school like USC which, again, has one of the very best water polo programs in the country and churns out Olympians.

SHAPIRO: Singer also taped similar conversations with Wilson, the father, about arranging similar sports bribes to get kids into Stanford and Harvard. These were Wilson's other children. What happened there?

BORCHERS: Yeah. So unfortunately for Wilson, when he came back to Singer for another time around, by then Rick Singer was cooperating with the FBI and recording those phone conversations. So one play was to get a daughter into Stanford as a sailing recruit. The other one wanted to go to Harvard. And it was maybe going to be as a sailor, maybe as a member of the rowing team - wasn't sure, but it didn't matter.

SHAPIRO: All right. So after allegedly paying these massive bribes, Wilson gets his son into USC to play water polo. He walks onto the team four years ago. What happens?

BORCHERS: Well, he quits the team after just one semester. And so according to emails that are included in the FBI affidavit, Wilson asked Rick Singer if his son was going to stand out and be a clear misfit at practice among these elite water polo players. And Singer assured him, no, no. Don't worry. He only has to keep up the ruse for a semester. Could maybe even fake injury for a while, and then he could just walk away from the team, which is what he did.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the whole scheme to get kids into these elite colleges, in some cases, it seems like the kids had no idea what their parents were doing. If you're going to play a sport that you are not actually good at, it seems like the kid would have to know, right?

BORCHERS: Yes. It would be implausible, to say the least, that the kid in this particular case could not have known. I can see other scenarios where perhaps the child was indeed in the dark. We know that Rick Singer also arranged for test scores to be altered after the fact. But that's not what was going on in this case.

SHAPIRO: You've reached out to the family. Have they said anything to you?

BORCHERS: They have not. I've also reached out to some former colleagues of his, and none have agreed to speak on the record.

SHAPIRO: What do you think the story of this one family tells us about the larger college admissions scandal?

BORCHERS: Well, it's a great example of a case where money is really no object. And in fact, the emails and phone calls that are recorded in the FBI affidavit indicate that this father, John Wilson, was willing to pay even more money to get his daughters into Stanford and Harvard - up to $500,000 apiece. So we're talking about paying more than a million dollars for three kids just to get into school, and then to pay full price once they're there.

SHAPIRO: Reporter Callum Borchers of WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much.

BORCHERS: Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Callum Borchers