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USC’s Donna Heinel arrested in college admissions bribery scandal

Donna Heinel USC

Donna Heinel, USC’s senior associate athletic director and a prominent member of the LGBTQ collegiate athletics community, has been arrested after being indicted in the sweeping college admissions bribery scandal.

Donna Heinel, USC’s senior associate athletic director and a vocal advocate for gay and lesbian visibility in collegiate athletics, has been arrested after being indicted in the sweeping college admissions bribery scandal.

Donna Heinel fired, arrested

Heinel, 57, and who identifies as a lesbian, was fired by the university and arrested Tuesday after allegedly receiving bribes totaling more than $1.3 million that helped numerous privileged students enter elite colleges and universities by falsely designating them as accomplished athletes, according to court documents. The unqualified students were able to gain admission to UCLA, Yale, Georgetown, Wake Forest, Stanford, Texas, and the University of San Diego.

Heinel allegedly enabled parents to take advantage of the relaxed USC admissions standards for athletes even though their children were not being recruited for any sports teams, according to court documents released in Massachusetts federal court Tuesday.

Heinel is scheduled to appear in a Boston federal court March 25.

The owner of a for-profit Newport Beach college admissions company masterminded the scheme where wealthy and privileged parents allegedly paid to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and falsify student athletic records that would enable them to secure admission to elite schools for which they otherwise might not qualify, according to court records.

USC responds

USC has not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation,” the university said in a statement. “We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university.

USC is conducting an internal investigation … and is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme,” the statement said.

The university also said it is reviewing its admissions processes to avoid a repeat scheme.

USC Gay, lesbian athlete visibility

Before the college admissions bribery scandal, Heinel, who, along with her wife and two children, lives in the Los Angeles area, was a vocal advocate who supported visibility for gay and lesbian student athletes.

  • During a 2013 USC panel discussion, “Sports and The Collegiate LGBT Experience, Heinel said the environment for athletes at USC had improved significantly improved after Pat Hayden was appointed athletic director in 2010. “We actually acknowledge the existence of gay and lesbian student athletes,” Heinel said.
  • Three years later, Heinel was credited with helping distribute “We are SC” rainbow pride T-shirts distributed to USC athletes for National Coming Out Day. “We were thinking about a lot of ways to celebrate,” Heinel told USC’s student newspaper The Daily Trojan. “The (athletes) said they wanted something that subtly shows support for gay student athletes and something that allies can wear proudly. It’s going to get people talking, and that’s really what we want to do.”
  • In 2017, Heinel helped USC become one of only two schools to earn a perfect score from Athlete Ally’s Athletic Equality Index, a comprehensive ranking and review of LGBTQ inclusion practices and policies in the NCAA Power Five Conferences.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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