Vandemoer, 41, of Palo Alto, Calif., became the first person sentenced in the Varsity Blues case, out of 50 the federal government charged.
U.S. District Senior Judge Rya W. Zobel delivered the sentence. Noting that Vandemoer had not pocketed bribes for his own gain, in contrast to others accused in the scandal, Zobel said: “I have not heard of anyone who is less culpable.”
Before receiving the sentence, Vandemoer read a statement of apology to everyone from the government to his two children, ages 16 months and 3 years old. “The career I worked for 20 years is gone,” he told the court. “My freedom is in jeopardy . . . I deserve all this. I caused it. And for that I am deeply ashamed.”
Vandemoer had pleaded guilty March 12 as the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts revealed an audacious scam to help the children of wealthy parents secure admission to prominent universities through cheating on admission tests and the false presentation of applicants as athletic recruits. Among the targeted schools were Yale and Georgetown universities and the University of Southern California. The mastermind, consultant William “Rick” Singer, also pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors say Vandemoer agreed to accept $610,000 in bribes from Singer in exchange for designating certain well-connected applicants as recruits for Stanford’s sailing team. Vandemoer did not pocket the money personally, prosecutors say, but funneled it to the Stanford sailing program.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen told Zobel that the case exposed deep unfairness in college admissions — and that a strong sentence would help correct that problem.
“The system is rigged. It is broken. It is crying out for reform and change,” Rosen said during the sentencing hearing. “A slap on the wrist,” he added, would shortchange “not only the criminal justice system but also all those kids in high school who are working hard every day in an effort to improve their own lives and get into the best school that they can — honestly and through hard work.”
A government sentencing memo described a scheme that unfolded starting in fall 2016. First, Singer orchestrated a $500,000 payment to Stanford’s sailing program, the memo said, associated with a student who was ultimately admitted to Stanford and enrolled there. That student was never on the sailing team, Stanford said, and was not designated as a sailing recruit. But the university expelled the student this year after the conspiracy came to light based on its discovery of false material within the application. News reports indicate that the expelled student’s family paid Singer $6.5 million for his effort to help her get into Stanford.
Then came a $110,000 payment to Stanford sailing in 2018 associated with a prospective student whom Vandemoer designated as a sailing recruit, according to the sentencing memo. In addition to those payments totaling $610,000, the memo recounts a third Singer-orchestrated payment of $160,000 to the program in connection with another prospective recruit. Those two students wound up at other schools.
None of the three students involved was charged with crimes.
Letters filed with the court on behalf of Vandemoer describe him as a caring coach and a father of two young children who wants to make amends.
“This whole ordeal was a complete shock to both John and I,” Molly Vandemoer, his wife, wrote to Zobel. “Once the shock wore off, he was incredibly remorseful for the circumstances he put myself and our kids in, and for what the team would have to ‘weather.’ Never once did he feel sorry for himself. Instead, he was angry at the mistake he made and what it was doing to those around him.”
Audi Steele and Michael Borrus, parents of a Stanford graduate who sailed for Vandemoer, described him as devoted to his team and his family. “If you want to know John Vandemoer,” they wrote to the judge, “you need to see him standing all day in a driving rain as his team competed for a National Championship. You need to hear him tell his sailors again, and again, how honesty and integrity were more important than a victory.”
Stanford fired Vandemoer when he pleaded guilty. The university said this week it is studying what to do with the tainted money. “We continue to be in contact with state authorities regarding the proper way to redirect to another entity the funds that were contributed to the Stanford sailing program as part of this fraud,” Stanford said. “We are eager to complete this process and will do so as soon as we have received the necessary guidance.”
Thirty-three of those charged in the Varsity Blues case are parents, including Los Angeles actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, have both pleaded not guilty to two conspiracy counts. Huffman pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing in September.
Anderson reported from Washington.