Prosecution may not call star witness in 1st trial in US college admissions scandal

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) - One key face could be missing from the first trial beginning this week in the U.S. college admissions scandal that ensnared dozens of wealthy corporate executives and Hollywood actresses - the scheme's mastermind who helped prosecutors build the case.

For months beginning in mid-2018, college admissions consultant William "Rick" Singer allowed the FBI to record his calls with clients who, prosecutors say, sought his help to fraudulently obtain slots for their children at elite universities.

The recordings became a centerpiece of "Operation Varsity Blues," an investigation into what prosecutors in Boston say was the largest U.S. college admissions fraud scheme ever uncovered, resulting in charges against 57 people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

But with jury selection beginning on Wednesday in the case of two parents, former Wynn Resorts Ltd executive Gamal Aziz and private equity firm founder John Wilson, prosecutors are hedging on calling their star witness to testify.

Prosecutors in an Aug. 17 brief said they had not decided whether to call Singer. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank later said it would be a "game-time decision" based on how the trial progresses, prompting defense complaints.

"They've had two and a half years to decide whether to call this guy," Brian Kelly, Aziz's lawyer at Nixon Peabody, said in court. "He's their key guy. We should know."

Defense lawyers have attacked not just the credibility of Singer, an admitted fraudster, but of the calls themselves, after obtaining notes he took claiming he was pressured to "tell a fib" on the calls by saying the money they paid was used to bribe officials rather than for university donations.

Michael Weinstein, a lawyer not involved in the case at Cole Schotz, said allowing Singer to testify could backfire on prosecutors as defense lawyers could grill him about the recordings' reliability and his motivations to cooperate in hopes of a lenient sentence.

"Quite simply, Singer has more baggage than a luggage store," Weinstein said.

Prosecutors say Singer through his California-based college counseling business, The Key, offered not just legitimate services to parents worried about their children's college prospects but also the use of an illicit "side door" to secure them admission.

Prosecutors said parents paid Singer over $25 million to bribe university athletic officials so their children could gain admission as fake athletic recruits. Parents also paid Singer to facilitate college entrance exam cheating.

He pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges in 2019. Forty-six other people have since pleaded guilty, including Loughlin and Huffman.

Prosecutors say Aziz, the former president of Wynn Resorts' Macau subsidiary and onetime executive at MGM Resorts International, agreed in 2018 to pay $300,000 to secure his daughter's admission to the University of Southern California (USC) as a basketball recruit by bribing an official.

Prosecutors allege Wilson, the founder of Hyannis Port Capital, from 2013 to 2018 agreed to pay Singer more than $1.7 million to fraudulently secure spots for his three children at USC, Stanford and Harvard.

Both men deny wrongdoing, saying they believed their payments would not be used for bribes. The trial will last up to four weeks, with opening statements scheduled for Monday.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Bill Berkrot)