Former Wine Country Vintner Sentenced to 5 Months in College Admissions Bribery Case

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Wine Country magnate Agustin Huneeus Jr. (center) makes his way to the courthouse to plead guilty on March 29, 2019, in Boston. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images)

The former CEO of a Napa-based wine empire has been sentenced to five months in prison for his role in the college admissions scandal.

Agustin Huneeus Jr., 53, of San Francisco, was sentenced in Boston's federal court Friday after pleading guilty in May to fraud and conspiracy. He was one of a number of defendants who pleaded guilty earlier this year in the massive college admissions scheme. He is the fifth parent to be sentenced.

The College Admissions Scandal

Authorities say Huneeus paid $50,000 to rig his daughter's SAT exam in 2018 and agreed to pay $250,000 to bribe her way into the University of Southern California as a fake water polo player. He was arrested before completing the deal and his daughter was not admitted. Huneeus' family owns vineyards in the Wine Country and Oregon. After he was arrested in March, Huneeus ceded control of the family business to his father.

Federal officials charged dozens of people in the conspiracy, including a number of Bay Area parents, who paid enormous sums to ensure their children got into elite schools. In some cases that included falsifying records and test scores, or even creating fake athletic resumes with doctored photos of other student-athletes.

The deals were all made through William "Rick" Singer, a Sacramento resident who "owned and operated the Edge College & Career Network LLC ('The Key') – a for-profit college counseling and preparation business – and served as the CEO of the Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF) – a nonprofit corporation that he established as a purported charity," according to the Justice Department.

As a result of the scandal, Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed three laws Friday: to tighten rules on when colleges can admit students who don't meet standard eligibility requirements; to require schools to tell the Legislature if they give preferential treatment to some applicants; and to prevent people found guilty in the scandal from receiving tax benefits stemming from bribes that might have been disguised as charitable contributions.

"This package of bills strikes at the forces that keep the doors of opportunity closed to too many people in our state," said Newsom.

In an extensive report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice, the college admissions scheme is laid out in detail via emails and recorded phone calls. That includes the specific of Huneeus' dealings with Singer. Huneeus is accused of paying for fraudulent SAT scores and a fabricated athletic profile that falsely identified his daughter as a "3-year Varsity Letter winner" in water polo and "Team MVP 2017." This includes the following photograph, which is actually of someone else.

A fabricated athletic profile falsely identified Augustin Huneeus Jr.'s daughter as a "3-year Varsity Letter winner" in water polo and "Team MVP 2017," along with this fabricated photograph, which is of another individual. (U.S. Department of Justice)

In transcripts of the recorded phone calls, Huneeus works out the logistics of having his daughter take the SAT at a special location in L.A., where Singer assures him a proctor will be flown out to change her answers. Huneeus is later recorded complaining that she only got a 1380 on the SAT — which Singer tells him is better than a higher score because it won't arouse suspicion.

Huneeus also paid for his daughter, who did not play water polo, to be admitted as an athlete on the USC water polo team. On recorded phone calls, he was told to send a $50,000 check to USC Women's Athletics and his daughter's athletic "achievements" would then be presented to a committee for admissions acceptance.

The Bay Area resident also sought assurances from Singer that his daughter wouldn't have to actually play for the USC team and that she would be guaranteed admittance after he paid.

"OK, so there's no chance that I give that 50 [thousand dollars] and then she's not admitted?"

"You won't send it until you get the letter."

Additionally, Huneeus was then instructed to pay Singer's foundation another $200,000 after the final admissions letters went out. In the transcripts, Singer voices concern that authorities are cracking down on him and that Huneeus should say the money was a donation.

"Dude, what do you think, I'm a moron?"

"No, I'm not saying you're a moron, the point is..."

"I'm going to say that I've been inspired how you're helping underprivileged kids get into college. Totally got it."

Throughout the recorded conversations, Huneeus also mentions another Bay Area parent involved in the scandal, Bill McGlashan. McGlashan wanted his son, who went to the same school as Huneeus's daughter, to remain unaware of the arrangements with Singer, whereas Huneeus had a different agreement. McGlashan is a Mill Valley investment manager whose brother was a prominent Marin County supervisor.

Huneeus also, at one point, asks Singer if this is going to blow up in his face. "Hasn't in 24 years," responds Singer on the transcript.

Singer is identified as "Cooperating Witness 1" in the indictment, with prosecutors noting he hoped for a lenient sentence in return for aiding investigators. He later pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy. He began cooperating with the government in late 2018, but added obstruction to his charges after warning some of the subjects about the investigation.

Prosecutors recommended a $95,000 fine and 15 months in prison for Huneeus, the longest term they have sought for a parent involved in the case. His lawyers said he deserved two months. He was sentenced to five months, a $100,000 fine and 500 hours of community service.

Huneeus is among a few parents accused of pursuing both angles of the scam: Most either cheated on their children's college entrance exams or paid bribes to get them admitted as recruited athletes, but not both.

In court documents, Huneeus said that he realized cheating for his daughter "was not about helping her, it was about how it would make me feel. In the end my own ego brought me down."

Huneeus has also said he is ashamed and saw that his actions represent "the worst sort of entitlement."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.