USC parent and former food executive pleads guilty in admissions scandal

Former California food executive Michelle Janavs pleaded guilty Monday on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering for her participation in Operation Varsity Blues.

Janavs, a Newport Beach resident, is accused of paying $300,000 to have her daughter admitted to USC as a beach volleyball recruit and of fixing her daughter’s ACT test scores. 

Janavs is one of three parents who chose to come forward on a guilty plea Monday after refusing a deal to plead guilty on a charge of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud in April. 

Janavs and the other 18 parents, including actress Lori Loughlin, who chose to maintain innocence were additionally charged with money laundering in April and now face pressure from federal prosecutors who warned that they could be charged with committing federal program bribery as soon as next week, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In August 2017,  Janavs forwarded correspondence to William “Rick” Singer, who ran the college admissions scheme, indicating that her daughter was approved for extended time on the ACT to which he replied, “Awesome news. It works.” In October 2017, Janavs’ daughter took the ACT at the West Hollywood Test Center, one of the main test centers involved in the admissions scandal. She received a score of 32 out of 36 on the entrance exam. 

To alter the entrance exam, Janavs paid two installments of $50,000 to the Key Worldwide Foundation, Singer’s fake charity, some of which was also distributed to the test proctor and Igor Dvorskiy, the director of the West Hollywood College Preparatory School.

Janav’s daughter submitted the falsified ACT test scores to USC in Fall 2018 as part of her application.

Unlike other students anonymously referenced in the investigation, Janavs’ daughter had played competitive volleyball in high school, but she hadn’t played beach volleyball competitively. The fake recruiting profile, presented by former associate athletic director Donna Heinel to an admissions committee, falsely stated she won several beach volleyball tournaments in California. 

Janavs’ daughter had received a conditional acceptance letter to USC in October 2018. During a January call with Janavs, Singer said a beach volleyball coach approached Heinel about Janavs’ daughter’s spot on the roster. If the coach approached Janavs about her daughter, Singer instructed her to say her daughter would be practicing at tournaments throughout the summer to prepare for the season, according to documents from the FBI investigation. 

Janavs also approached Singer in November 2018 to discuss paying for her younger daughter to take the ACT with Dvorskiy in Los Angeles. Janavs worried that her second daughter, who was studying in hopes of receiving a 34 or higher out of 36, might question why she had to travel to take the test.  

“The only thing is [my younger daughter] is not like [my older daughter] … She’s not stupid,” Janavs said in a phone call with Singer. “So if I said to her, ‘Well, we’re going to take it up at [Singer’s]’ she’s going to wonder why.” 

Her younger daughter took the exam with Dvorskiy in February 2019 at the West Hollywood Test Center and Janavs wired her first payment of $25,000 to a Boston account in the name of Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation. 

Janavs will be sentenced Feb. 25. 

According to a press release from the District of Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or twice the resulting gain or loss. Meanwhile, conspiracy to commit money laundering can result in a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved. 

So far, Agustin Huneeus, a prominent Napa Valley winemaker who paid $250,000 to have his daughter admitted to USC as a fake water polo recruit, has received the highest sentence of any parent to plead guilty for involvement in the scandal. Huneeus was sentenced to five months in prison, two years of supervised release and 500 hours of community service. He will also be required to pay a $100,000 fine. 

In response to a request for comment, USC directed the Daily Trojan to an informational page on its website last updated Aug. 12. 

“The University is conducting a full review of the matter and continues to cooperate with the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation,” the page read.

Janavs’ legal team did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.