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Lynnfield man risks jail to fight college scandal charges

John Wilson and his wife, Leslie, leaving the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse following a hearing in Boston April 3. (Spenser R. Hasak)

Two defense lawyers say the Lynnfield father who prosecutors allege bribed a coach to secure a spot for his son at a prestigious university is rolling the dice by pleading not guilty. At stake is upwards of 40 years in jail.

Unlike actress Felicity Huffman, star of television’s “Desperate Housewives,” and 21 other parents, coaches, administrators and test takers who have pled guilty in the nationwide college admission scandal, John B. Wilson is taking his chances by going to trial.

“There really is a discount and the case goes away when you accept responsibility,” said Peter Elikann, former chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association Criminal Justice Division. “If you don’t plead guilty quickly, a defendant faces the consequences of prosecutors making additional charges.”

That’s what happened to Wilson and 14 other parents in April when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston added an allegation of money laundering. The parents were originally charged with one count of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and honest services fraud, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Money laundering conspiracy adds another potential 20 years.

Prosecutors say the 59-year-old investor, who owns a $2.4 million, five-bedroom Colonial on Ashley Court, allegedly paid the accused mastermind of the scheme, William “Rick” Singer, $220,000 to get his son into the University of Southern California and onto the school’s water polo team in 2014, followed by $1 million for his twin daughters to attend Stanford and Harvard universities based, in part, on athletic skills they lacked, according to court documents.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office provided a trail of emails between Wilson and Singer, a cooperating government witness who has pled guilty. His nonprofit collected more than $25 million from wealthy parents over eight years to help get their children into some of the nation’s finest colleges.

In one exchange, Wilson inquired about the timing of his payments to Jovan Vavic, the former USC water polo coach, to secure his son’s admission as a water polo recruit.

“What does Jovan need by Sept. 20?” Wilson allegedly wrote. “Do u have what we need? Do I make the first payment to u then?”

In response, Singer said he had everything needed to send to Vavic “so he can add your son to his recruit list and present him to admissions in October.”

Wilson replied “Great, Let me know when u have verified u have it all completed and into Jovan … also when and where to wire money.”

Vavic, who was fired in March amid fallout from the scandal, has pleaded not guilty.

Elikann said a defendant gets points on the sentencing guidelines, and also, at times, can help fashion the charge.

Huffman, because of her guilty plea, he said, could result in no jail time at all.

Still, Elikann said, if prosecutors lack evidence, by all means go to trial.

“If you and your attorney determine the government has nailed you cold with evidence, and there’s little chance of being found not guilty, it would be helpful to try to resolve the case early than let it drag on,” he said.

It’s not exactly a level playing field, he said. Prosecutors have a say in sentencing because they can determine the charge, Elikann added.

“That’s why in state courts you often see innocent people plead guilty rather than rolling the dice when they could be incarcerated for a long time,” he said.

Based on the emails, it appears the government has a strong case against Wilson, Elikann said.

“The million dollar question is why go to trial?” he said. “I don’t want to second guess someone’s attorney, but if it doesn’t look like that you will win at trial because of the mountain of evidence, then it would be the defendant who’d be better served if they resolved it quickly.”

Stephen J. Weymouth, another Boston defense lawyer, agreed. Defendants who plead guilty can get what’s called a two- or three-level reduction in the sentence.

“If you go to trial, you don’t get that, and email trail could be used against him at a trial,” he said. “If you choose to go to trial, you must have a good defense to convince the jury that you are not guilty or the government can’t prove its case.”

Wilson’s lawyer, Michael Kendall, managing partner of White & Case LLP’s Boston office, declined to comment.

One source familiar with the case but who declined to be identified said the defense is likely to say Wilson was making a contribution to the school, not paying a bribe.

The admissions controversy has focused attention on donations from wealthy parents of applicants. The case that probably has received the most attention is that of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and White House aide.

Daniel Golden at ProPublica wrote about Kushner’s admission to Harvard University in his book “The Price of Admission,” published before Trump became president and before Kushner married into Trump’s family.

Golden wrote Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, pledged $2.5 million to Harvard in 1998, shortly before his son was admitted. The elder Kushner denied that the gift was related to his son’s application.

Golden interviewed administrators at the Frisch School, an Orthodox high school in New Jersey, and they expressed shock by his admission to Harvard.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” one former official said. “His grade point average did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it, and we thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen, then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

A status conference on Wilson’s case has been scheduled for Oct. 2 in U.S. District Court in Boston.

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