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Former Stanford Sailing Coach Avoids Prison Time For College Admissions Scandal


To another story now. We have the first sentence in the massive college admissions cheating scandal. A former sailing coach at Stanford has received two years of supervised release. He will avoid prison time. John Vandemoer admitted taking more than half a million dollars in bribes to help students get into Stanford.

NPR's Tovia Smith was in federal court in Boston for that sentencing. She joins me now. And, Tovia, no prison time - was that expected?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: No. Sentencing guidelines, as a matter of fact, call for between two and three years. But all sides in this case agreed that this defendant is somewhat unique. So prosecutors were actually asking for just over one year. Defense wanted no time at all. And ultimately, the judge agreed with defense attorneys - no jail time, though six months of house arrest.

And the judge explained the sentence by saying she agreed with the defense that John Vandemoer was the least culpable defendant in the whole scandal because he never profited from this himself. All the money that came in went to the sailing team. Also, the students who he agreed to make special recruits to the sailing team never actually became sailing recruits, so the harm and the crime were considered to be less.

Also, this defendant took responsibility for what he did. He apologized profusely in court. He was choking up as he said how sorry he was for the cloud that he brought over his team and Stanford and his family. And he said he was deeply ashamed and acknowledged that he deserved to be punished.

KELLY: And I understand John Vandemoer came out and spoke to you all - spoke to reporters afterward. Was it the same, more words of contrition?

SMITH: Yeah. He reiterated that he learned his lesson and accepts responsibility, and also that, again, it was not for himself.


JOHN VANDEMOER: This case, for me, was about trying to do what I thought was right for the team. In no way could I have used the money for personal expenses or personal gain. My actions were wrong. I see that now. But my intentions were to help the team.

KELLY: As you said, Tovia, this cannot have been the result prosecutors were hoping for. What have they said?

SMITH: No comment after, but certainly disappointment. They spoke at length in court about wanting this sentence to send a powerful message that if you bribe or lie or cheat in the college admissions process like this that you will go to prison. If not, the prosecutor said - if defendants get to walk away with a slap on the wrist, that would send the message that courts don't really care, the prosecutor said, and that maybe what happened here is more of a gray area than a bribe.

So prosecutors said, in the future, a parent or a coach who is considering taking a bribe would think, well, if the sentence is only going to be probation, why not take the risk? And lastly, they raised the point that a slap on the wrist would also make it look like the rules apply differently to the wealthy and the powerful than those convicted of other crimes. So they said it was important that the defendant serve time, but the judge clearly saw it differently.

KELLY: Well, a reminder - this is the first sentence, as we said, but there are something like 50 defendants implicated in this scandal. Does what happened today in the courtroom affect the others at all?

SMITH: It does slightly. Each case is so different in how much money changed hands, whether the person pleaded guilty, when, whether the person is cooperating with the government, whether they've taken responsibility. All that counts. And, of course, their roles are different - coaches versus parents versus the people who went in and took the tests...

KELLY: Sure.

SMITH: ...And cheated for the kids. So what's also interesting here is that there's not one judge overseeing all these cases.

KELLY: Right.

SMITH: There's more than a half dozen, so they all have a lot of discretion in sentencing.

KELLY: All right. NPR's Tovia Smith in Boston, thank you.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.