Stanford ex-coach gets one day in prison in college scandal

The first sentence in the U.S. college admissions scandal was handed down, and it’s one day in prison.

Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer, who will also have to serve six months of home confinement and pay a $10,000 fine, was “probably the least culpable of all of the defendants” because he didn’t personally profit from the scam, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel said in federal court in Boston on Wednesday.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of 13 months in prison for the former head coach, 41, who admitted to taking more than $500,000 in bribes for the sailing team in exchange for recruiting unqualified applicants to get them into Stanford.

His punishment, in the biggest scam of its kind in the U.S., may offer a hint of how judges will view the crimes of coaches, parents, test administrators and others snared through their connection to corrupt college consultant William “Rick” Singer. In all, 50 have been charged.

“I love you and I’m truly sorry,” Vandemoer said to his family before the judge pronounced his sentence. “I spent my life trying to be a good and moral person, but here I made a big mistake.”

With his wife and their two children under 3, he was evicted from university housing after Stanford fired him in March when the charges were announced, according to his lawyers. In court on Wednesday, he also apologized to the university, where he worked for 11 years, compiling an impressive record of wins.

Unique defendant

Vandemoer was the only coach in the scandal who wasn’t accused of taking bribes for his personal use, with the money going to the sailing team. Prosecutors said Vandemoer got plenty of benefit from the bribes anyway.

“This was an illicit quid pro quo, in violation of his fiduciary duty to Stanford: he secretly sold recruitment slots in exchange for payments that were used to benefit the sailing program he ran, and so enhanced his own career prospects,” the government said in a court filing.

In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen cut directly to the point.

“The system is rigged. It’s broken and it’s crying out for change,” he told Zobel. “If we give just a slap on the wrist,” he said, it would shortchange high school students seeking college admission through hard work and honest applications. “Those kids want this court to acknowledge, when they apply to college and pay the application fee, they get a fair chance.”

$6.5 million gift

Vandemoer, who earlier was head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, worked with a third applicant, from China, whose family gave Singer $6.5 million to endow sailing coaches’ salaries, although Stanford never saw the money, prosecutors said. They said the sum was paid to a sham charity Singer set up to launder bribes. It was by far the biggest bribe cited by the government, though many numbered in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

Singer, who pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors, created a phony sailing profile for the applicant but discovered it was too late in the recruiting season for her admission as an athlete, according to the government. The student ultimately was admitted to Stanford through “the regular admissions process,” prosecutors said. She was expelled this year over false sailing credentials included in her application.

“Mr. Vandemoer failed in one instance to live up to the high expectations he set for himself,” his lawyers said in a court filing. They said he “is determined to make amends for this mistake, move on with his life and continue to provide for his family.”

None of the colleges or students in the scandal have been charged.

Vandemoer’s supporters

Dozens of supporters of Vandemoer, including former Stanford sailors and their parents, sent letters to the judge asking for leniency. They portrayed Vandemoer’s conduct as an aberration and called the former head coach soft-spoken, conscientious and devoted to young athletes. His teams won 29 of 30 spring conference championships, according to records.

One supporter cast Vandemoer as a victim of his own naivete and went on to partly blame inadequate funding of less popular sports.

“Although disappointed with how this controversy has developed, I am not at all surprised with how such low profile and poorly funded sports like sailing, soccer, rowing etc., became such easy targets in this rather ingenious criminal operation that created this mess,” wrote Joseph W. McCoy, who identified himself as a San Francisco sailboat-racing enthusiast and Stanford alum.

Stanford sent a letter of its own to the judge, calling Vandemoer’s conduct “wholly antithetical to Stanford’s core values.” The university has deemed the donations to the sailing program “tainted,” Vice President and General Counsel Debra Zumwalt wrote, and is “in discussions with the California Attorney General about an appropriate way for those funds to be used for the public good.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.