Court filings: USC admissions officials considered family potential to donate money

Photo courtesy of MGN
By Margaret Shuttleworth, CNN

(CNN) -- Internal admissions emails from the University of Southern California made public through a court filing Tuesday reveal that family wealth was a factor in university enrollment discussions in recent years.

The admissions documents made public through a court filing Tuesday, were first reported by the Los Angeles Times. They were filed in District Court in Massachusetts by Martin Weinberg, an attorney for Robert Zangrillo, in an attempt to show his client was following established admissions practice at USC.

Zangrillo has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering related to money sent to an account controlled by Donna Heinel, a USC athletics official, and payments to William "Rick" Singer, the mastermind of the college admissions scam, to get his daughter admitted to USC.

Heinel, who was fired by USC in March, has pleaded not guilty to racketeering charges. Her attorney, Nina Marino, told the Los Angeles times in a statement that the emails show "an aspect of USC admission that was directly linked to donations," and said Heinel "did not create this system."

Singer pleaded guilty to four felonies related to the scandal. He has not yet been sentenced.

CNN has also obtained the court filings, which included emails exchanged between USC college admissions personnel and parents of prospective students. One of the emails includes a spreadsheet titled "cumulative Special Interest list from 2012-2015" that lists special interest applicants and includes a column that describes families who have a history of donating money to USC and their potential to donate money in the future.

The spreadsheet does not indicate whether potential or past donations impacted the USC admissions office's decisions. However, emails between Heinel, who at the time was USC's senior associate athletic director, and Timothy Brunold, USC dean of admissions, appear to indicate families' past donations were impacting admissions decisions.

In a 2014 email, Heinel asks Brunold if there is room for a mid-year transfer, and adds, "To be transparent — Our community service initiative is funded by the [redacted] foundation-this is the daughter." After a follow-up, Brunold responds that he has "just been directed to admit this student to the spring semester." In a 2018 email, Heinel asks Brunold to change his decision on an applicant and mentions that "The family has helped build the foundation of many USC projects and initiatives." Brunold writes that he will change the admissions decision.

According to the Los Angeles Times reporting, attorney Martin Weinberg, who filed the documents in court, wrote the records would "prove the existence of a university-wide program at USC ... where past donations, pledges of future donations, or expectation of future donations based on the university's belief in a parent's resources deeply affects the chances for a prospective student's admission."

The Los Angeles Times also reported that USC's spokeswoman stated that the school does not hide the fact that officials on campus are allowed to flag certain applicants for special attention by the admissions office, but that the admissions office alone decides which students will be admitted to USC.

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