The Stanford sailing coach who pleaded guilty and was fired for his role in the massive nationwide college admissions cheating scandal will on Wednesday become the first of the 50 counselors, coaches and parents charged in the case to be sentenced.
And with the nation’s eyes watching in a case that has captivated the country and left many seething at a scheme that let the rich and comfortable allegedly bribe their kids into elite colleges, the burning question will be whether John Vandemoer gets sentenced to prison or, as his lawyer argues, just probation.
A former federal prosecutor who has closely followed the case said it’s hard to imagine the former coach gets no prison time for his involvement in the scheme that involved bribes to athletic coaches and test cheating masterminded by a California college admissions consultant to secure enrollment for his rich clients’ kids.
“The judge in this case wants to send a powerful message to would-be cheaters — you’re going to pay the piper,” said Manny Medrano, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles specializes in white collar criminal defense.
“I firmly believe he’s going to federal prison. If the judge grants probation to this defendant, the judge is setting the wrong example and tone for the rest of the case.”
Vandemoer pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering March 12, the day federal prosecutors announced the Operation Varsity Blues case, along with the scheme’s mastermind, William “Rick” Singer, who is not scheduled to be sentenced until September. Medrano said the order in which defendants are sentenced largely reflects their attorneys’ schedules.
Prosecutors in Boston, where the case was filed, in a sentencing memorandum recommend that Vandemoer be sentenced to 13 months in prison and a year of supervised release for his role in the conspiracy. They noted that is less than the 18 months and year of supervised release Vandemoer could have faced under his plea agreement and well short of the 37 to 46 months they say he could face under sentencing guidelines.
“Over the course of approximately two years, the defendant — the former head sailing coach
at Stanford University — participated in a sweeping bribery, fraud and money laundering scheme
that helped secure the admission of students to elite universities over other, more qualified applicants,” prosecutors wrote. “His actions not only deceived and defrauded the university that employed him, but also validated a national cynicism over college admissions by helping wealthy and unscrupulous
applicants enjoy an unjust advantage over those who either lack deep pockets or are simply unwilling to cheat to get ahead.”
But Vandemoer’s lawyer, Robert Fisher, argues in a sentencing memorandum that the former coach should receive no prison time and only a probationary sentence. He notes that unlike other coaches caught up on the caper, Vandemoer did not personally receive payment as part of the scheme or secure a student’s fraudulent admission.
Vandemoer steered a total of $770,000 from Singer to Stanford’s sailing program, for which he agreed to recommend enrollment for students with little or no boating experience as recruits to his team.
That included payments of $110,000 and $160,000 on behalf of two students who chose to enroll at other universities before Vandemoer could recommend them as recruits. It also included $500,000 associated with a third student, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese family who reportedly paid Singer $6.5 million to secure her admission to Stanford.
Vandemoer didn’t recommend that student for enrollment as a sailing recruit due to the timing of her application. But she was admitted anyway based in part on an application Singer prepared that included fraudulent sailing credentials. She has since been expelled.
“Mr. Vandemoer failed in one instance to live up to the high expectations he sets for himself,” Fisher wrote in a memorandum to the court. “He fully accepts responsibility for his mistake. Mr. Vandemoer is determined to make amends for this mistake, move on with his life, and continue to provide for his family.”
More than two dozen people — his wife, assistant coach, and former sailors and their parents — wrote letters on Vandemoer’s behalf urging leniency.
His wife, Molly, wrote that she wasn’t angry with her husband of 11 years over the crime that has upended their lives and those of their two children, ages 3 and 1.
“I know he made a mistake,” Molly Vandemoer wrote. “I know it is extremely costly to his livelihood, to our family, etc. But I know he will never do something like this again. I know he will continue to be an upstanding member of society, and I know he will always be the loving, patient, and hard working man I met 13 years ago.”
His assistant and now interim coach, Clinton Hayes, wrote that Vandemoer “truly cared that every one of
our student athletes left Stanford a better person and productive member of society.” Former sailor Samantha Steele, who graduated in 2016, wrote that “integrity always mattered to John.”
Prosecutors, however, wrote that they already took those factors into account in recommending Vandemoer serve 13 months in prison, and bristled at the suggestion that he didn’t benefit from involvement in the scheme and urged a “meaningful term of incarceration.”
“He funneled the criminal proceeds to accounts he controlled for the university sailing program,” prosecutors wrote. “He secretly sold recruitment slots in exchange for payments that were used to benefit the sailing program he ran, and so enhanced his own career prospects.”
Stanford, in a “victim impact statement” submitted to the court, took no position regarding any particular sentence, but said Vandemoer’s actions “undermined public confidence in the college admissions system and reflected negatively on Stanford and its hard-working, honest student athletes.”
The university said in an updated statement that it is “working to review, and strengthen wherever necessary, its policies and processes” and is “committed to learning from this deeply unfortunate episode and ensuring the integrity of our programs going forward.”
Former prosecutor Medrano said that with so many of the accused fighting the charges, there is pressure on the court not to signal they have little to lose by handing down a light sentence. Of the 50 charged, 21 have pleaded or agreed to plead guilty.
“The judge has to set an example for other defendants in this case,” Medrano said. “If he gives a light sentence to someone who pleaded guilty, others will fight this because at the end of the day, they know it’ll be a light sentence.”