Jovan Vavic, who was convicted on bribery and fraud, won a striking victory after a string of guilty verdicts and guilty pleas by parents, coaches and others embroiled in the scandal.
Jovan Vavic, a former water polo coach at the University of Southern California who was convicted of bribery as part of the far-reaching Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, was granted a new trial on Thursday by a federal judge in Boston.
Mr. Vavic was accused of taking bribes in the name of the water polo team and to fund private school tuition for his children, in exchange for recruiting prospective students as water polo players with trumped-up credentials. He was convicted of bribery and fraud.
The judge, Indira Talwani, declined to overturn the jury’s verdict, but in her decision to grant a new trial, she questioned whether the university could be considered a victim when it had kept the money and even sent thank-you notes.
The judge said that the government had “conflated” a payment to the water polo team with a payment to the coach.
“There was no evidence in the record to suggest that Vavic was taking U.S.C. water polo team money for his own benefit,” she wrote in her decision. “And, however distasteful, there is nothing inherently illegal about a private institution accepting money in exchange for a student’s admission.”
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The order for a new trial was a striking victory for a defendant after a string of guilty verdicts and guilty pleas involving parents and coaches and others embroiled in the scandal, including the television actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. There has been one acquittal in the case, of a parent whose child was a tennis recruit at Georgetown.
Mr. Vavic was accused of being part of a far-reaching admissions scheme in which a corrupt private college counselor, William Singer, arranged for students to be recruited with faked athletic credentials in return for payments to his foundation and for athletic officials. The universities were not complicit, prosecutors said.
Mr. Vavic’s lawyers accused Mr. Singer, who has pleaded guilty, of being a liar and said that Mr. Vavic had been pressured by the fund-raising culture at the university to recruit athletes whose families could afford to make large donations but that he wanted the students to be real athletes.
“In granting a new trial, the court recognizes what we have long argued — the government’s case is built on the knowingly false statements of admitted fraudster Rick Singer,” Mr. Vavic’s lawyer, Stephen G. Larson, said in a statement on Thursday. “As we have demonstrated and the court now confirms, there is no evidence that Coach Vavic ever used donations to the U.S.C. water polo program for his own benefit.”
Rachael S. Rollins, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said: “We are very disappointed in this ruling, which we do not believe is grounded in the facts or the law. The jury convicted Mr. Vavic on every single count, and we believe they got it right. At this point, we are reviewing all of our options.”
Since the indictments were announced in 2019, the government has stressed that the universities involved were not implicated in the scandal. However, the scandal has put an unsavory light on athletic recruitment, exposing how it can be entwined with fund-raising.
In a 60-page decision, the judge said the jury had reached a reasonable verdict. But she did find that the government might have introduced enough confusion into the minds of the jury as to warrant a new trial.
During the trial, Mr. Vavic’s lawyers said he had never misappropriated any money or committed any fraud. They said that about $100,000 of the cash had been deposited into a U.S.C. account for the water polo teams. Another $120,000 went to pay private school tuition for his sons — money they said had come in the form of scholarships from Mr. Singer’s foundation.
Prosecutors said the foundation had been a conduit for bribery.
The order for a new trial also put wind in the sails of another defendant, John Wilson, a former executive at Staples and Gap and the founder of a real estate and private equity firm. Mr. Wilson is appealing his conviction on charges of paying more than $1.2 million to ensure that his three children would be admitted to the University of Southern California, Harvard University and Stanford University as Division I athletic recruits — even though prosecutors said they would not have qualified based on their athletic credentials.
Mr. Vavic helped recruit Mr. Wilson’s son to the water polo team.
“Judge Talwani’s ruling correctly rejects the prosecution’s claim that John Wilson’s donations were bribes,” Mr. Wilson’s lawyer, Noel Francisco, said in a statement on Thursday. “Indeed, the prosecution cannot identify a single example in all American legal history where the victim and beneficiary of a ‘bribe’ were one and the same.”