Former Stanford sailing coach dodges prison term in 'Varsity Blues' college entrance scam

The one-time coach became the first defendant in the scandal to be sentenced.

ByKate Hodgson and Bill Hutchinson
June 12, 2019, 5:28 PM

The former Stanford University sailing coach charged in the massive "Varsity Blues" college entrance cheating scam avoided a prison term Wednesday when he became the first defendant in the nationwide scandal to be sentenced.

John Vandemoer was sentenced in Boston federal court to six months of home detention and two years of supervised release. He was also ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

Vandemoer, 42, had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering. Of the 22 defendants who have pleaded guilty, he was the first to be sentenced.

Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer walks into the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Mass.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Vandemoer had faced a sentence of 27 to 33 months in prison, but U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel departed from the suggested sentencing guidelines, concluding "he's probably the least culpable in this case" and saying that it was hard to justify sending him to prison.

Technically, Zobel sentenced Vandemoer to one day in prison, accounting for the time he spent in jail following his arrest in March.

During Wednesday's court hearing, Vandemoer apologized to those he said he hurt, including his wife, sister, father and friends, as well as his former Stanford team, the sailing community, and the sailing alumni of the Palo Alto, California, university.

"I love you and I'm truly sorry," Vandemoer said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen vigorously argued for a 13-month prison sentence for Vandemoer, and he read several letters from high school students who were disheartened by the scandal, in which Vandemoer, and other coaches at elite colleges allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for helping get students from wealthy families into their schools.

“This is unfair," Rosen said of the sentence handed down by Zobel. "This is totally unfair. This system is rigged. It is broken... If we give just a slap on the wrist instead of real punishment ... we’re shortchanging not only the criminal justice system but all those kids in high school.”

Cyclists ride by Hoover Tower on the Stanford University campus, March 12, 2019, in Stanford, Calif.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, FILE

But Zobel was unmoved by Rosen's argument and expressed skepticism that Vandemoer personally benefited from the scam, citing evidence that he gave all of the bribe money to the Stanford sailing program.

“I don’t know what we’re fighting about other than for your other cases," Zobel told Rosen.

Vandemoer's lawyer, Robert Fisher, countered that his client should not be made an example in the widespread cheating scam.

“It’s unfortunate John has to be the first to go through this," Fisher said. "I really don’t think this is about him."

“He is doing anything and everything he can to rebuild his life," Fisher added. "He’s been working extremely hard on this. You have a gentleman here today who has taken all the right steps. He admits he made a mistake. He’s remorseful and paid a very, very significant price.”

On March 13, federal prosecutors announced that 50 people, including 33 wealthy parents, were charged in the largest college cheating scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Those indicted included actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who prosecutors said allegedly paid bribes to William "Rick" Singer, who masterminded the scam.

Singer, the owner of a college counseling service and a sham charity called Key Worldwide Foundation, allegedly accepted bribes totaling $25 million from parents between 2011 and 2018 to guarantee their children's admission to elite schools. Singer, in turn, paid bribes to coaches, who allegedly claimed the students were recruited athletes despite never having played the sport they were recruited for.

Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, California, pleaded guilty in a Boston federal court in March on charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. He cooperated with federal investigators, even wearing a wire to help investigators implicate parents in the scam.

He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 19.

Huffman, 56, is among the defendants who have pleaded guilty in the scam. She pleaded guilty last month to a charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

Through tears, Huffman acknowledged that she was guilty of paying $15,000 to arrange for a college entrance exam proctor to correct her daughter’s answers, and for her daughter to be allowed more time to take the test. In exchange for her plea, federal prosecutors consented to recommend a sentence of four months imprisonment, a year of supervised release and a $20,000 fine.

Huffman is expected to be sentenced on Sept. 13 in Boston federal court.

Loughlin, 54, best known for her role as Aunt Becky in the ABC sitcom "Full House," and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, 55, continue to fight the charges against them.

Loughlin and Giannulli allegedly agreed to pay Singer "bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team -- despite the fact that they did not participate in crew -- thereby facilitating their admission to USC," according to the indictment.

Both were initially charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. In April, prosecutors filed an additional count of conspiracy to commit money laundering against Loughlin, Giannulli and 14 other parents ensnared in the scam.