Coaches, others plead not guilty in college admissions scam

Wake Forest women’s volleyball coach Bill Ferguson among those charged

Suspended Wake Forest volleyball coach Bill Ferguson arrives at federal court in Boston on Monday to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (Steven Senne / AP Photo)

BOSTON — Athletic coaches charged in a sweeping college admissions scam pleaded not guilty Monday to taking bribes from wealthy parents in exchange for helping students get into elite universities such as Wake Forest.

They appeared in Boston’s federal court nearly two weeks after they were arrested in what authorities have described as the biggest college admissions scheme ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, which also ensnared prominent parents like actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Authorities say the coaches were paid tens of thousands of dollars to help falsify student’s athletic credentials and get them admitted as recruits for sports they didn’t play.

They include longtime tennis coach Gordon Ernst, who’s accused of getting $2.7 million in bribes to designate at least 12 applicants as recruits to Georgetown, as well as former UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, Wake Forest University women’s volleyball coach Bill Ferguson and former USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic.

One by one, the suit-clad coaches stood before the packed courtroom before leaning into the microphone to say “not guilty.”

Ernst, Salcedo, Vavic and their lawyers left the courthouse without commenting amid a crush of reporters shouting questions.

An attorney for Ferguson told reporters that his client is innocent and “does not belong in this indictment.” Ferguson is charged with taking a $100,000 bribe to recruit a student who had been placed on the waitlist. He’s been suspended by Wake Forest.

“Two weeks ago, the U.S. attorney told you about a litany of abuses: phony test scores, unqualified students, falsified athletic profiles. Well, I can’t speak to what happened at any other school, but not at Wake Forest University,” attorney Shaun Clarke said. “No one, no one was admitted to Wake Forest who didn’t earn it as a student and as an athlete,” he said.

Ernst, who also was the personal tennis coach for former first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, left Georgetown in 2017 after an internal investigation found he violated admissions rules. He was later hired by the University of Rhode Island, which says it wasn’t told about the admissions rules violations. The school said Saturday that Ernst has resigned.

Salcedo, a former UCLA All-American and national champion, also resigned after being charged with getting $200,000 in exchange for helping one male and one female applicant into the school.

Authorities say Vavic, who won 16 national water polo titles at USC, was paid $250,000 to designate two students as recruits. He has been fired by USC.

Former USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, two college entrance exam administrators and other defendants accused of participating in the admissions scam also pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges Monday.

The charge calls for up to 20 years in prison, although defendants, especially first-time offenders, typically get far less than that.

At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, fashion, the food and beverage industry and other fields, have been charged in the case.