Former Stanford sailing coach avoids prison in first sentence of college admissions scandal
John Vandemoer's case has unique circumstances meaning his sentence might not signal other "Varsity Blues" defendants will avoid prison. USA TODAY
BOSTON – Former Stanford University head sailing coach John Vandemoer was sentenced Wednesday to home supervision – not prison – for his actions in the nation's college admissions scandal, a blow to prosecutors who had sought to send a strong message to other defendants in the high-profile case.
A federal judge gave Vandemoer two years of supervised release, including the first six months confined to his home, and a $10,000 fine in the first sentencing of the "Varsity Blues" college admissions bribery and cheating case.
He received a prison term of just one day, but it was deemed already served when he was arrested in March. Prosecutors had sought 13 months of prison while Vandemoer's defense fought for probation over incarceration.
Vandemoer, 41, pleaded guilty in March to racketeering charges for accepting $610,000 in bribes from the admissions scheme's mastermind Rick Singer to benefit Stanford's sailing program in exchange for designating college applicants as sailing recruits to get them accepted into the prestigious university.
The college admissions scam involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman shows how some rich families use a “side door” to game an already unfair education system. USA TODAY
Federal Judge Rya Zobel said it's important that Vandemoer be punished "because it's too easy to do this kind of thing" but she didn't think prison was warranted. Vandemoer funneled payments to Stanford's sailing program, not his personal use, she noted, and none of the students tied to his payments attended Stanford as a direct result of his actions.
Vandemoer, joined by his wife, parents and sister outside the courthouse after the hearing, said he takes full responsibility for his actions and accepts the consequences.
"A big part of my coaching philosophy has always been that it's not the mistake that defines you, but it's what you do afterwards," he said. "I'm holding true to those words now in the face of my biggest mistake."
Vandemoer is the first of the 22 defendants who have pleaded guilty in the nation's sweeping college admissions scandal to receive a sentence. But because of his case's unique circumstances, his sentence might not signal other defendants will also avoid prison.
Still, the judge was bluntly skeptical of the government's central case, saying that although Vandemoer certainly committed fraud against Stanford, she couldn't determine that the payments he collected were bribes under the federal commercial bribery statute.
“You call them a bribe, but it’s not clear to me what makes it a bribe," Zobel said.
The judge also questioned whether Stanford suffered any losses at all from Vandmoer's actions – noting that no admissions slots were used on under-qualified students – and whether the coach himself gained anything from the transaction.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen cited Vandemoer's salary paid by Stanford as a loss for the school. He said directing the money to the sailing program was "absolutely his gain" because he could buy boats and other sailing equipment that benefit him.
The judge shot back: “So it’s a psychological gain.”
Rosen responded: “It’s not a psychological gain. He had the choice to put (the money) where he wanted.”
Stanford has said the university is in discussions with the California attorney general about an appropriate way for the "tainted" money brought in by Vandemoer to be used for "the public good."
In a brief statement after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said, “We will continue to seek meaningful penalties in these cases.”
Prosecutors, led by Rosen, argued that Vandemoer's sentence should set an example in the historic admissions case, calling prison "the only way to deter similarly situated individuals" who are "entrusted with the power to shape figures."
He told the judge a prison sentence for Vandemoer “will set the tone for this case going forward" – and “send a powerful message” that if a person takes bribes for college admissions, he or she will be criminally prosecuted and go to jail.
He added that the sentence should signal to "honest and hardworking high school students" who are trying to get into college the right way that the wealthy can't pay bribes to undermine the system.
“These kids deserve that. Our society needs that," he said prior to the sentencing. If Vandemoer were to avoid prison, Rosen said, it would be "shortchanging not only the criminal justice system but all those kids in school trying to get in by hard work."
“The danger in this case and others is not an over-sentence but failing to send a message,” he said.
But Vandemoer's defense, led by attorney Robert Fisher, argued that he did not personally profit from the scheme "though he easily could have."
“He is a unique individual in what is a unique and unprecedented case," Fisher said. "No student got in. Money was given to the victim. We have unusual facts.”
"Everyone but Mr. Vandemoer gained something," Fisher said of the 50 overall defendants in the college admissions case that also include famous actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. "He got nothing. He gave every single dime to sailing, to Stanford. He could have pocketed that. He didn't."
Fisher highlighted letters from some of Vandemoer's former sailing players and others – 27 in all – lauding his character. Vandemoer is married with two children under 2 years old.
“Jail isn’t going to do anything other than punish his family." he said, adding that his client has already lost his job, his housing and health insurance and been the subject of countless media reports. “This is a gentleman whose heart is in the right place."
In March, Vandemoer admitted to designating a female college applicant from China as a sailing recruit in early 2016 after Singer, the scheme's ringleader, promised that the student's family would "endow" sailing coach salaries. Singer, who funneled payments from wealthy parents to carry out the admissions scheme, created a fake sailing profile for the student, but it was too late in the recruitment process, and the student was accepted through the normal admissions process.
Prosecutors say Singer paid Vandemoer's sailing program $500,000 for his efforts anyway and for "recruiting" future clients.
The initial student has since been revealed as Yusi Zhao from China, whose mother paid $6.5 million to Singer's nonprofit The Key Worldwide Foundation in what prosecutors say was the largest single transaction in the entire scheme. Zhao is no longer at Stanford.
In the spring of 2018, Singer funneled an additional $110,000 into the sailing program for a second student to be designated as a sailing recruit, but the student chose to attend Brown University instead, prosecutors say.
Later that year, Singer promised Vandemoer an additional $160,000 for the sailing program to get a third female student tagged as a sailing recruit, but she ultimately went to Vanderbilt University. By this point. Singer was cooperating with federal investigators and his phone calls with Vandemoer were wiretapped.
The next defendant set to be sentenced in the college admissions scandal is Mark Riddell, a former college counselor at a private high school in Florida, who has pleaded guilty to taking tests for the children of parents who paid bribes to Singer. His sentencing date is set for July 18.
Follow Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.