Ex-USC water polo coach gets new bribery trial
BOSTON — A federal judge on Thursday ordered a new trial for a former University of Southern California water polo coach convicted in a college admissions bribery scandal.
U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani found that the government presented some evidence. Fraud and Bribery Case of Jovan Vavik unreliability and that the prosecution erred in its argument to the jury about the alleged bribe money.
Vavec, who guided USC’s men’s and women’s water polo teams to 16 national championships, was sentenced in April after being arrested in March 2019 in the headlines of “Operation Varsity Blues.”
Prosecutors accused Vavec of taking more than $200,000 in bribes for fake athletic credentials and designating college applicants as water polo athletes to get into USC.
Prosecutors said he also helped recruit others into the scheme, pointing to wiretap transcripts in which Vaveck described the arrangement as a “win-win” situation and where he expressed suspicions about the scheme. “Just do it,” encouraged a fellow coach.
Prosecutors said the admissions consultant at the center of the scheme — Rick Singer — made payments for Wavik’s water polo program and his children’s private school tuition.
Vaveck’s lawyers argued during the trial that he was only doing what athletic officials at the elite Los Angeles school had asked him to do to raise money for his dominant program. They argued that he was always acting in the best interest of the school and his team, never lied and never accepted bribes.
Under the judge’s instructions to the jury, prosecutors had to show that the payments “served the interests of the defendants and harmed the university,” the judge wrote.
Yet some of the alleged bribe money went to the water polo program — not Vavec himself — and “there is no evidence in the record that Vavec was taking money from the USC water polo team for his own benefit, ” wrote the judge. Even so, prosecutors argued he was acting against the university’s interests in accepting the money, the judge wrote.
“However distasteful, there is nothing inherently illegal in a private institution charging money for a student’s admission,” Talwani said. “The government’s argument is further undermined here where there was no suggestion that USC returned the money after the scheme was exposed.”
The judge’s decision “protects Coach Vavik from wrongful conviction,” Wavik’s attorney, Stephen Larson, said in an email.
“In granting a new trial, the Court acknowledges what we have long argued — the government’s case is built on knowingly false statements by admitted fraudster Rick Singer,” he said. ” “As we have demonstrated and the court has now confirmed, there is no evidence that Coach Wawick ever used donations to the USC water polo program for his own benefit.”
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Rachel Rollins said her office is reviewing all of its options in response to the ruling.
“We are deeply disappointed by this decision, which we do not believe is based on the facts or the law,” he said in an emailed statement. “The jury found Mr. Vavick guilty on each count and we believe he did it right.”
More than 50 people were convicted in the “Operation Varsity Blues” case. They include TV actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin’s fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannoli.
The last defendant in the investigation to go to trial was acquitted by the jury on all counts. Another defendant was pardoned by former President Donald Trump, and a third defendant received a deal that would see his case dismissed.