A former University of Southern California coach who was convicted earlier this year of taking part in the college admissions scandal that rocked elite US schools has been granted a new trial.
Jovan Vavic, a famed water polo coach at USC for 25 years, was convicted by a jury in April of soliciting and accepting over $220,000 in bribes in exchange for helping secure admissions for students. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit honest services mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery and honest services wire fraud.
Prosecutors alleged he created a “side door” for students to become athletic recruits by designating them as water polo recruits regardless of whether they played the sport. They also alleged he used fake athletic resumes in the process.
On Thursday, US District Judge Indira Talwani granted Vavic’s motion for a new trial but denied his request for a judgment of acquittal.
“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,” defense attorney Stephen Larson said in an emailed statement. “As we have demonstrated and the Court now confirms, there is no evidence that Coach Vavic ever used donations to the USC water polo program for his own benefit.”
US Attorney Rachael S. Rollins said a conviction was the correct decision.
“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,” the prosecutor said. “At this point, we are reviewing all of our options.”
Vavic’s lawyers argued in court that evidence presented at trial was “insufficient” as it relates to the conspiracy counts he faced, and that it “resulted in prejudicial spillover” to the honest services mail and wire fraud count.
The defense team also argued that a prosecutor made misstatements during closing arguments, including when the prosecutor said Vavic agreed to recruit a student for $100,000.
“The government’s argument that he was agreeing to recruit a student for money to his water polo program was supported by this evidence. But the assertion that the agreement was for $100,000 was not supported by any evidence,” Talwani said in her decision.
The misstatements alone were not enough to warrant a new trial, Talwani wrote, but the situation was compounded by the fact that prosecutors introduced statements from the scheme’s mastermind, Rick Singer, that were false.
“The government presumably introduced Singer’s statements to show how Singer solicited parents as part of the scheme,” Talwani wrote. “But where the government made no disclaimer or acknowledgment to the jury that it was not offering Singer’s statements about Vavic for their truth, there is a substantial risk that the jury reached a decision based on false evidence.”
Singer, prosecutors have said, ran two general scams: First, to cheat on standardized tests for students whose parents paid; and second, to use Singer’s connections with college sports coaches and use bribes to get paying parents’ kids into school with fake athletic credentials.
Vavic, a 15-time national coach of the year, was fired in March 2019 after allegations of his involvement in the scam were made public. His men’s teams at USC won 10 national titles and he guided the women to six crowns.
The vast majority of those charged in the admissions scandal have pleaded guilty and served out their sentences, generally measured in weeks or months.
Among the more high-profile parents charged in the test-taking portion of the scheme was actress Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying $15,000 to Singer to boost her older daughter’s test scores. Huffman spent 11 days in jail in 2019.
Another actress, Lori Loughlin, spent two months in prison and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, spent five months in prison for paying $500,000 to get their two daughters into USC as recruited athletes.
Singer, who pleaded guilty to several conspiracy charges in 2019, is scheduled to be sentenced in November, according to the Justice Department.
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.