Donna Heinel, ex-USC sports official, sentenced to prison in admissions scandal

Donna Heinel USC College Admissions Scandal

Donna Heinel, ex-USC women’s athletic director, arrives at Boston federal courthouse to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal, March 25, 2019. On Friday, Heinel, who accepted bribes from the ringleader to help get often unqualified students into the school as sports recruits, was sentenced Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, to six months in prison. Heinel was also sentenced in U.S. District Court in Boston to two years of probation and was ordered to forfeit $160,000. Photo: TV screenshot

Donna Heinel, an ex-senior associate athletic director at USC, was sentenced today to six months behind bars for her role in the vast fraud and bribery scheme that allowed children of wealthy parents to gain admission to some of the country’s top universities, including USC, as fake sports recruits.

Heinel, 61, of Long Beach, and a recognized member of the LGBTQ university sports community who identifies as a lesbian, was also ordered to serve two years of supervised release and pay $160,000 in restitution, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Donna Heinel

Heinel, who was fired by USC in 2019 on the day she was indicted, pleaded guilty in November 2021 in Boston federal court to “honest services” wire fraud for arranging for more than two dozen students to get into USC in exchange for over $1.3 million in bribes.

Prosecutors said in court papers that Heinel “abused a position of trust in a manner that significantly facilitated the commission of the offense.”

Heinel worked with the scheme’s organizer, William “Rick” Singer, to coordinate students’ admissions to USC as fake athletic recruits over a four-year period beginning in 2014.

Singer was sentenced Wednesday to three and a half years in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $10 million in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service. He was also ordered to forfeit $8.7 million in assets tied to the scheme.

Heinel presented applicants to admissions committees in exchange for payments from Singer, according to the complaint filed in March 2019.

The admissions scheme

Before Heinel entered into the plea deal, she was scheduled to go to trial on a series of federal charges, including conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and honest services mail and wire fraud. Heinel faced up to 60 years behind bars if convicted on all counts, prosecutors said.

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,

including nearly three dozen parents who subsequently pleaded guilty, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin’s fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli. Parents have received punishments ranging from probation to 15 months in prison.

Singer, the Newport Beach consultant at the center of the scheme, pleaded guilty in March 2019 to charges of racketeering, money laundering, fraud and obstruction.

Prosecutors said that beginning in 2017, Heinel 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.

Advocate for gay, lesbian student athletes

Before the college admissions bribery scandal and her fall from race, Donna 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, Donna 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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