When Donald Trump granted a full pardon to Robert Zangrillo, a Miami developer accused of paying $250,000 in bribes to get his daughter into the University of Southern California, the White House release claimed that prominent businesspeople and a USC trustee supported the move. Already, at least two of the people named are claiming they had nothing to do with the campaign to end Zangrillo’s prosecution, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Although other admissions scandal parents such as Lori Loughlin, Mossimo Giannulli, and Felicity Huffman all got time for their crimes, Zangillo alone enjoyed Trump’s special attention. Federal prosecutors who were set to try the real estate investor in Boston later this year on charges related to bribery, fraud, and money laundering, were understandably peeved by the news.
In a statement, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling said Zangrillo’s plot included “having his own daughter knowingly participate in a scheme to lie to USC,” and said Trump’s pardon demonstrated “precisely why Operation Varsity Blues was necessary in the first place.”
But no one was more surprised than the people who Team Trump said supported Zangrillo’s pardon—namely, Napster co-founder Sean Parker and USC alumnus and trustee Thomas J. Barrack.
Barrack is an old pal of Trump’s and even chaired his inauguration committee, but a spokesman denied any connection between Barrack and Zangrillo’s sudden good fortune.
“Mr. Barrack had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Zangrillo’s pardon,” the rep said in a statement. “He never intervened and never had discussion with anyone about it. All reports to the contrary are patently false.”
A source familiar with Barrack told the Times that he’s never met Zangrillo but that the developer pulled a number of strings to try to enlist Barrack’s help with the USC problem—only to be stymied again and again.
As for Parker, a spokesman for the tech billionaire was vehement that Zangrillo is a complete stranger for whom Parker never lifted a finger.
“Sean doesn’t know [Zangrillo] and did not make any request for a pardon on his behalf,” the rep told the Times.
Another dubious claim from the White House was its assertion that Zangrillo’s daughter was “currently earning” a stellar 3.9 GPA, despite a USC spokesperson confirming that she’s not even enrolled there.
Of all the wealthy folk caught in the Varsity Blues net, Zangrillo stood out as particularly unctuous to the Feds. Not only is he accused of paying $200,000 to scandal mastermind William “Rick” Singer and another $50,000 to USC’s athletics department, he’s also the only parent accused of hiring other people to do his kid’s schoolwork, including an online art course she had previously failed.
What’s more, Zangrillo’s lawyers produced documents in 2019 that they claimed proved that parents using money to grease their children into USC was merely par for the course at the university, and that their evidence would “undermine the mythology that a donation to a USC athletic department somehow is proof of any element of a federal crime.”
That evidence included a spreadsheet that charted applicants’ donations, connections, and SAT scores. Although USC claimed that the admissions office doesn’t track applicant donations, Zangrillo’s lawyers cited a list of “special interest” candidates from 2012 to 2015. The list featured notes such as, “$3 mil to Men’s Golf-Thailand,” “$15 mil” and “previously donated $25K to Heritage Hall.”
Zangrillo’s attorneys claimed that while 80 percent of “special interest” applicants made the cut, the acceptance rate for the general public hit a new low of 11 percent in 2019.
At the time, they argued, “The fact that the $50,000 check from Mr. Zangrillo appears to have been provided as part of a regular university-wide practice of accepting donations from families of prospective students and conferring a corresponding benefit upon those students in the admission process supports an argument that the payment was merely a donation, not an illicit bribe.”
Shortly after Zangrillo’s defense tried that gambit, lawyers for other scandal parents demanded a slew of USC internal documents, including university fundraising records, to demonstrate that their clients believed their payments were legit contributions to the school, and had no way of knowing that the payouts were out of the ordinary.
Meanwhile, worrying about the future was for other people even before Zangrillo got Trump’s Golden Ticket. In November, a judge allowed him to traipse through Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum for a ten-day business escapade.