Former Texas tennis coach pleads guilty in court in college admissions scandal
The college admissions scandal exposed by the indictments of some of wealthiest people in America is causing anger and shock at Yale University. (March 13)
BOSTON – Michael Center, former men's tennis coach at the University of Texas, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in federal court Wednesday, becoming the third college coach to admit guilt in the nation's college admissions scandal.
Center, who acknowledged accepting $100,0000 in bribes to falsely designate a college applicant as an athlete, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services wire fraud. He was appearing before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns, who accepted the plea agreement.
He also agreed to cooperate moving forward with prosecutors and provide "substantial assistance" with the investigation or prosecution of "another person" as the Justice Department pursues other possible defendants in the sweeping case.
Center joins former Yale women's soccer coach Rudy Meredith and former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer as coaches who have waived the right to a trial to instead reach a deal with prosecutors and plead guitly in the nation's largest-ever college admissions conspiracy case.
A fourth coach, former University of Southern California assistant women's soccer coach Laura Janke, on Tuesday entered a guilty plea but awaits a court date.
Center, fired by Texas in March, faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, an additional three years of supervision upon release and a fine of $250,000. But prosecutors have recommended he receive the "low end" of the sentencing range, which would be 15 to 21 months of incarceration. He's agreed to forfeit $60,000, equal to the amount he said he made from the offense.
Center's sentence hearing is Oct. 30.
"Yes sir," Center said, when asked by the judge if he know what his guilty plea means.
Center, a former journalism major in college who is married with two children, coached highly ranked tennis teams at Texas. He told Stearns that the stress of the case has forced him to take anti-anxiety medicine including Xanax.
Mike Cudha, Center's attorney, issued a statement outside the courthouse following the hearing that expressed his client's regret for his actions.
"Michael Center is a very good man who made a bad mistake – a criminally bad mistake," Cudha said. "He has helped countless people. He's mentored countless people over the course of a long career. He's very sorry for what he did and at this point wants to make amends."
Cudha declined to discuss what information Center might offer as part of his cooperation agreement. But he added, "There are very few cooperation agreements in this courthouse."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen went over Center's charges in court. He said Center in 2015 agreed to accept a payment of $100,000 from Rick Singer, the ringleader in the admissions scheme, in exchange for designating a student from Los Altos Hills, California, who did not even play competitive tennis, as a Texas tennis player.
College admissions scandal: More arrests could be coming 'in the near future' in admissions case, prosecutors say
The money came from more than $630,000 in stock donations that the father of the student, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Schaepe, allegedly made to Singer's sham nonprofit organization the Key Worldwide Foundation.
Schaepe has admitted publicly that he's the parent implicated in the case but has said he committed no wrongdoing and thought Singer's group was "aboveboard." He has not been charged in the case and his name is not disclosed in the complaint against Center nor was it mentioned in court.
A spokeswoman for Schaepe, in a statement to USA TODAY, said the Schaepes were "not aware of any unlawful payments to Michael Center or The Key Worldwide Foundation.
"The Schaepes made multiple large donations to each of several non-profits in 2015 consistent with their typical annual pattern of gifting.”
Prosecutors say the bribe to Center was arranged by a separate defendant, Martin Fox of Houston, who last month pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges. Fox introduced Center to Singer, prosecutors say.
Fox emailed Center the student's transcript and application essays in the fall of 2014, prosecutors say, and Center later emailed the student's application to the college administration so that it would be coded as a student-athlete.
Documents referenced by the prosecution say the student's tennis experience on the high school tennis team was limited to just one year as a freshman.
In February 2015, the student's father – Schaepe – made a donation of stock valued at $455,194 to Singer's nonprofit, according to prosecutors. In March, prosecutors say Center emailed the father that he would be sending him a letter of notification for a "books" scholarship, which allows the university to purchase books for college athletes as part of the recruitment process. University of Texas awarded the student the scholarship the next month.
After he enrolled at the University of Texas, the student quickly withdrew from the tennis team at the beginning of the academic school year in September 2015, prosecutors say.
His father had allegedly made additional stock donations of $102,925 and later $73,445 to Singer's foundation in April and May 2015.
Singer mailed Fox a check of $100,000 in June 2015 for his role in brokering the bribe, according to the complaint against Center.
In April, an employee of Singer's organization purchased a $25,000 cashier's check payable to "Texas athletics," prosecutors say. Singer in June sent a $15,000 check to Center and that same month flew to Austin, Texas, and gave Center $60,000 in cash in a hotel parking lot, prosecutors say.
Three years later, in October 2018, Singer – who by this point was cooperating with the Justice Department's investigation into the college admissions scheme – allegedly got Center to admit to his role during wiretapped phone call while prosecutors listened.
In all, five out of the 50 defendants, including Singer, have pleaded guilty in the sweeping college admission case and an additional 16 defendants, including actress Felicity Huffman, have agreed to plead guilty.