USC defends admissions processes following subpoena for internal records

USC defended its admissions processes nearly one month after a parent involved in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal subpoenaed USC for records related to the University’s admissions practice of flagging applicants as “VIP” and “special interest.” According to Monday’s court filing, USC maintains that the documents requested are difficult to present and have little relevance to the case.

According to Boston Federal Court records filed Thursday, Robert Zangrillo paid $200,000 to William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach-based businessman who co-founded The Edge College & Career Network, a for-profit business accused of running the college admissions scam. Singer plead guilty to all charges in March.

Records indicate that Zangrillo paid $50,000 to an account controlled by former USC Athletics administrator Donna Heinel to secure his daughter’s acceptance to the University. Zangrillo argues that his payment to the University was not a bribe, but a legally permissible donation. 

In August, Zangrillo subpoenaed USC for all records related to “special interest” applicants, a database of applicants whose families donated over $50,000, the names of University personnel responsible for such designations, the amount of money donated by flagged applicants, and any emails, texts and messages that involve his daughter. USC asked the judge to quash the subpoena.

“We recognize the seriousness of the charges against Mr. Zangrillo and will continue to fully cooperate,” the University wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “We expect the court will appreciate the importance of our obligation to protect students’ privacy rights, and will strike Mr. Zangrillo’s overly broad request.”

According to the motion, flagging “VIP” or “special” applicants is a common practice at universities nationwide, and USC has no official documentation or procedure regarding the practice. Dean of Admissions Timothy Brunold defended USC’s practices and maintains the office’s innocence against Zangrillo’s allegations and requests.

“USC does not possess any documents containing a complete list of students who received a special interest tag,” Brunold said.

The motion filed in court argues that this is not true, alleging USC maintained lists of students who received special interest tags and kept a “university-wide VIP spreadsheet” with lists of students whose families donated substantial amounts of money to the university.

However, Brunold said in the filed court documents that the documents referenced by Zangrillo were kept by Heinel, and that the Office of Admission does not keep any “comparable” document listing flagged students, their family’s donations and the reason for their being flagged.

Zangrillo and his legal team oppose these claims, arguing that Brunold’s acknowledgment of the spreadsheet in email correspondence from 2016 obtained by the court. In a March 10 email, Brunold wrote in reference to cross-checking applicants to a docket spreadsheet. He claims he was referring to a spreadsheet that could be created.

Zangrillo claims that these new defenses from the University are insufficient and that the court should deny USC’s motion to quash the subpoena. 

“In short, there is ‘reason to believe’ responsive documents exist and such indefinite and unsupported conclusions are no substitute for a university having its IT department search its servers – something done every day in corporate civil litigation or while responding to government subpoenas – to provide the Court with certitude that documents … either in fact exist or a certification that they do not,” Zangrillo wrote.