California winemaker sentenced to five months in prison in college admissions scam

Posted at 5:14 PM, Oct 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-04 17:14:18-04

A former Napa Valley vineyard owner was sentenced to five months in prison Friday for his role in the national college admissions scam, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts said.

Agustin Huneeus, the fifth parent sentenced in the scam, pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit fraud.

His sentence was the longest so far issued for a parent in the scandal. Prosecutors had asked for 15 months in prison, one year of supervised release and a $95,000 fine.

Huneeus had participated in both the test-cheating and athlete-recruiting schemes, prosecutors said.

Huneeus has admitted to paying $50,000 as part of a scheme to cheat on his daughter’s SAT exam, court records show. He also admitted to paying $50,000 in bribes — and agreeing to pay a further $200,000 — to get her into the University of Southern California as a purported water polo recruit.

Huneeus was arrested before he made the final $200,000 payment, prosecutors say. His daughter was conditionally accepted into USC late last year, but the admission was rescinded after his charges were announced.

He told his daughter to have a ‘shut-your-trap’ mentality, prosecutors say

More than 50 people — parents, coaches, test administrators and conspirators — were charged in the scandal, in which prosecutors said mastermind William “Rick” Singer either facilitated cheating on standardized tests or bribed college coaches to give students an advantage in the admissions process.

Of those charged, more than 30 are parents, accused of conspiring with Singer. More than 10 of those parents, including Huneeus, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud.

Singer pleaded guilty in March to four charges related to cheating on standardized tests and bribing college coaches and administrators.

In making their argument for giving Huneeus the harshest sentence so far, prosecutors emphasized in court documents that he is the only one up for sentencing to have admitted using both schemes.

He actively pursued the scam for two years, and told his daughter to have a “shut-your-trap mentality” about it, prosecutors wrote. She has not been charged in the case.

Huneeus’ lawyers, meanwhile, have argued his sentence should be mitigated, in part because — since the USC offer was rescinded — his daughter never took anyone’s spot at the university.

They also note that he faces years apart from the only industry he has known — the wine business — because he cannot hold an alcoholic beverage license as a recently convicted felon. He already has stopped managing his wine business because of this, his lawyers say.

Up to now, parents who participated in the test-cheating scheme have gotten lower sentences than those who admitted using the athlete-recruitment scheme. All have been sentenced by US District Judge Indira Talwani of Massachusetts.

The actress Felicity Huffman, who paid $15,000 to participate in the test-cheating scheme, was sentenced to two weeks in prison. Gordon Caplan, a former high-powered attorney, was sentenced to one month in prison for paying $75,000 to falsely boost his daughter’s ACT score.

Meanwhile, Stephen Semprevivo and Devin Sloane, who paid to get their children into prominent universities under the guise that they were recruited athletes, were each sentenced to four months in prison.

‘What do you think, I’m a moron?’

Before his arrest, Huneeus was captured on recorded phone calls speaking bluntly and openly about the details of the scam, according to a criminal complaint.

As part of the recruitment scheme, Singer sent a USC athletics official a fabricated athletic profile saying Huneeus’ daughter was a talented water polo player, and the profile even included a photo of a random water polo player, according to the complaint.

His daughter was then conditionally accepted to USC in November 2018. That offer was rescinded.

Later, after Singer began cooperating with prosecutors, he called Huneeus and told him he was being audited and that they should falsely tell authorities that the $50,000 was intended to help underserved children through Singer’s fake charity, according to the complaint.

“Dude, dude, what do you think, I’m a moron?” Huneeus responded, according to the complaint.

“I’m going to say that I’ve been inspired how you’re helping underprivileged kids get into college,” he added. “Totally got it.”