Emails show USC Athletics officials’ conversations about applicants’ wealth

Recently filed emails from former USC water polo Head Coach Jovan Vavic’s bribery trial depict conversations around applicants’ finances between USC Athletics officials. The trial, part of the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, has brought renewed attention to the role of wealth in the admissions process. 

Federal prosecutors implicated Vavic, the only athletic coach in the admissions scandal who brought their case to trial, as a participant in William “Rick” Singer’s college admissions scheme. Vavic allegedly accepted bribes that went toward the water polo program and his children’s private school tuition in exchange for designating select applicants as student athletes. 

USC dismissed Vavic in March 2019 when the federal investigation was first announced. Vavic pleaded not guilty to charges for federal programs bribery, conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud. Lawyers representing Vavic filed the email conversations as part of a request to call University officials as witnesses in the trial. 

The emails published in the filings contain messages between former Athletic Director Pat Haden, former senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and associate Athletic Directors Scott Wandizalik and Alexandra Reisman. While Heinel pleaded guilty last November to wire fraud for her role in the scheme, Haden, Wandizalik and Reisman have not been implicated or accused of wrongdoing by authorities.

In the newly released communications, Reisman frequently referenced the wealth of applicants, writing to Heinel about an applicant in 2013 that “will be at least a $1 million ask if we get her in.” 

“They’re like the Anheuser Busch family $$$$,” Reisman wrote in another email, writing that an applicant’s grandfather was the founder of a non-specified beer company. The applicant’s family “gave $20 million to a university in Canada,” Heinel noted, writing that there was “major potential for them.” 

In one of the released emails, Reisman wrote that she feared “intel” she received indicated that a family of an admitted student “was going to screw us on a gift.” The student had desired a position within the football program with the hope of “[getting] a boyfriend who is on the team.” 

“You’ve done enough to get her in – they need to pay up,” Reisman wrote to Heinel. 

Glenn MacKinlay, a former Massachusetts Assistant United States Attorney representing Reisman and Wandizalik, defended his clients in a filing on Wednesday, writing that their action “was perfectly appropriate” and that they “had nothing to do with Admissions,” but noted Reisman’s “poor choice of words.” 

Both Wandizalik and Reisman remain associate athletic directors at USC. 

Another email showed Haden, while serving as athletic director, requesting Heinel and Reisman provide “info on kid trying to get in.” “Is this THE GUY who was supposed to give us the $2 million or is this his relative?” Reisman wrote. Heinel responded affirmatively, “He is the one with the big money.”

Brandon Fox, Haden’s attorney, said his client was only doing his job, as athletic directors are expected to participate in University fundraising efforts. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Fox said that Haden did not “condition any student’s participation on a team to a donation” during his time at the University. 

The application process for student athletes differs from the standard admissions process for traditional applicants, given the emphasis on athletic achievements over academic performance.

Rebecca Chassin, assistant dean of undergraduate admissions, testified in September 2021 that students admitted to USC as a part of the scandal were “highly unlikely” to have gained entrance “without their athletic talent.” Chassin added that “their grades and test scores are far below our general students we admit.” 

Vavic’s trial marks a closing chapter tied to the Varsity Blues scandal. Nearly three years since news of the scheme broke in March 2019, the scandal has led to 50 guilty pleas and a nationwide conversation about unfair admission practices at top-ranked universities such as USC. 

“USC and our admissions processes are not on trial. The government has charged Mr. Vavic with taking bribes and deceiving USC’s Office of Admission by falsely presenting Mr. Singer’s clients as student-athletes,” the University wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “USC moved promptly to fire Mr. Vavic as the water polo head coach on March 12, 2019, the same day his indictment and the Varsity Blues investigation became public.”