A former athletic official at the University of Southern California was sentenced on Friday to six months in prison for her role in a nationwide fraud and bribery scheme that helped wealthy parents secure spots for their children at top colleges.
Donna Heinel, the school’s former senior associate athletic director, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani in Boston for helping get about two dozen students admitted as fake athletic recruits in exchange for money.
Prosecutors had sought two years in prison. While Talwani said her guilty plea to a single honest services wire fraud count in 2021 precluded such a long sentence, she rejected Heinel’s request for probation, citing her “dishonesty.”
Heinel is among 53 people who have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial following an investigation dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” that ensnared business executives and celebrities and exposed inequalities in U.S. higher education.
At its center of the scandal was William “Rick” Singer, a college admissions consultant who was sentenced on Wednesday to 3-1/2 years in prison for facilitating cheating on college entrance exams and funneling money from parents to university coaches to secure spots for their children as sports recruits. read more
Prosecutors said Heinel, 61, was one of the most prolific participants in the scheme by submitting information to a USC admissions committee from Singer about multiple students that misled it into believing their applications came from coaches who had not in fact not recruited them.
Prosecutors said she did so from 2015 to 2019 in exchange for nearly $1.28 million from Singer and his clients to USC accounts — donations Heinel said she secured to protect her job and meet escalating fundraising expectations.
“There was just so much pressure to raise money at my institution, and the amount just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Heinel said in court. “They talked about feeding the beast.”
Prosecutors said Heinel also personally pocketed $160,000 after she and Singer entered into “sham” consulting agreement. She has agreed to forfeit that money, though defense lawyer Nina Marino said, adding Heinel did not view it as a bribe at the time.