Donna Heinel, ex-USC sports director, pleads guilty in college admissions-bribery scandal

Donna Heinel USC College Admissions Scandal

Donna Heinel, ex-USC women’s athletic director, is seen leaving a Boston federal courthouse March 25, 2019. On Friday, pleaded guilty Friday in a Boston courtroom to participating in a vast fraud and bribery scheme for wealthy parents’ children to gain admission to colleges as fake sports recruits. Photo: TV screenshot

Donna Heinel, an ex-senior associate athletic director at the USC, pleaded guilty Friday in a Boston courtroom to participating in a vast fraud and bribery scheme for wealthy parents’ children to gain admission to colleges as fake sports recruits.

Those colleges and universities included USC, Yale, Georgetown, Wake Forest, Stanford, Texas, and the University of San Diego.

Heinel, 60, who identifies as a lesbian and is a recognized member of the LGBTQ university sports community, had been scheduled to face a federal jury in Boston later this month in the second trial to arise from the U.S. college admissions scandal.

Previous to entering into the plea deal, Heinel faced a series of federal counts including conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and honest services mail and wire fraud. She could have been sent to prison for 60 years if convicted on all counts, prosecutors said.

Instead,  Heinel entered a guilty plea to “honest services” wire fraud in arranging for more than two dozen students to get into the college, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Heinel signed a plea deal with federal prosecutors earlier this week, agreeing to accept a prison sentence up to 46 months.

She is scheduled to be sentenced March 11.

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USC admissions scandal

Heinel is among 57 people who were charged in the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, which ensnared business executives and celebrities and exposed inequalities in U.S. higher education.

Prosecutors said Heinel accepted bribes from the California college admissions consultant who masterminded the scheme, William “Rick” Singer, in exchange for designating his clients’ children as athletic recruits.

Prosecutors said Singer’s clients from 2014 to 2018 made more than $1.3 million in payments to USC accounts that Heinel designated and benefited.

Prosecutors said that beginning in 2017, she was also paid $20,000 per month through a sham consulting agreement with Singer. In exchange, Heinel facilitated the admission of more than two dozen students.

Heinel was fired by USC the day she was indicted in 2019.

Gay, lesbian student athletes

Before the college admissions bribery scandal and her fall from Grace, Heinel was a vocal advocate supporting 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 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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