In the flurry of headlines surrounding the “Varsity Blues” scandal, it might have been easy to overlook Donna Heinel.
The 61-year-old Southern California woman was not like dozens of others charged in the nationwide scam, not a big-time college coach or a wealthy executive, not a famous television actress.
But federal prosecutors characterize the former USC administrator as “one of the most-prolific and culpable participants” in a conspiracy to get unqualified students accepted to prestigious universities, often by passing them off as talented athletes.
On Friday, a Boston judge ordered Heinel to serve six months in prison with two years of supervised release and pay $160,000 in restitution for working behind the scenes to get students admitted to USC as “walk-on” recruits, some in sports they did not even play.
“As the college admissions cases have made clear, it is all too easy for coaches to solicit and accept bribes in exchange for athletic recruitment slots, and it is difficult for universities, and criminal authorities, to detect and prevent such fraud,” a government sentencing memorandum stated. “That is all the more true for athletic department administrators like Heinel who serve a gatekeeper function.”
Elite campuses such as Stanford, Yale, Georgetown and UCLA have been swept up in “Operation Varsity Blues,” a federal investigation whose 53 convictions have involved not only coaches, but also dozens of affluent parents.
The scheme’s mastermind, a private consultant named William “Rick” Singer, was sentenced to three years and six months in prison this week. Singer was able to work “side door” admissions for the children of his clients by cultivating relationships with coaches and administrators.
An estimated two dozen of those deals involved USC.
Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli, served brief prison sentences after paying Singer $500,000 to have their two daughters portrayed as crew recruits, though neither teenager was a rower. Actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to disguising a $15,000 donation to rig a college entrance exam for her daughter.
Several USC coaches were arrested for taking bribes in similar cases. Former soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin was sentenced to home confinement and water polo coach Jovan Vavic was convicted but later granted a new trial.
Though Heinel initially denied wrongdoing, the university fired her when she was indicted in 2019. After investigators gathered evidence of her interactions with Singer, she pleaded guilty to wire fraud in 2021.