College admissions bribery scandal: ex-coach convicted

A former Georgetown University tennis coach who once coached former President Barack Obama’s family was sentenced Friday to two and a half years in prison for pocketing more than $3 million in bribes to help wealthy parents raise their children in to cheat the school.

Gordon Ernst’s verdict is by far the harshest sentence yet in the wide-ranging college admissions bribery scandal, which has shed light on the efforts some wealthy parents will make to get their children enrolled in the most selective schools in the world to bring country.

Prosecutors had been looking for four years behind bars for Ernst, 55, who admitted to taking nearly $3.5 million in bribes over a decade to label the children of deep-pocketed parents as recruits, though they weren’t Georgetown caliber players.

Ernst told the Boston federal court judge that he had lost his moral compass and acted inconsistently with what he taught his own players how to make the right decisions.

“I am very ashamed that I didn’t follow what I preached to them,” he said.

In a letter to the judge, Ernst described growing up in Rhode Island with a demanding and physically abusive father — another Rhode Island tennis legend, the late Dick Ernst — whom he called more of a “coach and bully than a father.” Ernst’s mother told The Boston Globe that her husband was never abusive.

Ernst played hockey and tennis at Brown University in Providence before landing coaching jobs at Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania. He was offered the job of coaching men’s and women’s tennis in Georgetown in 2006 and two years later was introduced by a friend to admissions counselor Rick Singer, who masterminded the bribery scheme, Ernst told the judge.

Of the six spots Ernst got each year to recruit tennis players, prosecutors said he regularly gave at least two — often as many as five — to unqualified students in exchange for bribes. Over the years, he helped nearly two dozen students fraudulently get into the school, Assistant US Attorney Kristen Kearney told the judge.

And unlike some other accused coaches who were bribed in the form of money for their sports programs, Ernst pocketed almost all of the money for himself, according to prosecutors. He used the bribe to pay for his daughters’ expensive private school tuition and to buy a home on Cape Cod, Kearney said.

Defense attorneys asked the judge to sentence him to about a year in prison, saying in court documents that Ernst, like the tragic Greek mythical figure Icarus, “flew too close to the sun and forgot his wings were made of wax”.

Surrounded by wealthy and respected families in Georgetown, Ernst – whose starting salary was $55,000 – said he would not harm anyone or his team by taking the bribes, his attorneys wrote.

Ernst has been trying to turn his life around since his arrest in 2019, working part-time as a tennis coach, hockey umpire and rental car cleaner, Ernst’s attorneys said.

“Gordie has fallen from the White House to the tabloids — a fall that has fallen out of favor for far longer than the court sees in a typical case,” his attorneys wrote.

US District Judge Indira Talwani called Ernst’s actions “outrageous” and said it appeared to stem from a desire to portray himself as wealthy because he saw that as a measure of success.

Ernst left Georgetown in 2018 after an internal investigation was launched into what the school described as “irregularities in the athletic credentials” of the students he recruited and concluded he had broken admissions rules.

He was later hired by the University of Rhode Island, which claimed it was not informed of the violations of admissions rules. He left this school shortly after his arrest.

Ernst is among 54 people convicted in the Operation Varsity Blues case that made headlines in March 2019.

The latest suspect in the investigation to be tried was acquitted of all charges by a jury last month. Another defendant was pardoned by former President Donald Trump and a third defendant received a deal that is expected to see his case dismissed.

Before Friday, the harshest sentence was 15 months in prison for John Wilson, a former Staples Inc. executive who was convicted by a jury of $220,000 for his son’s appointment as a University of Southern California water polo recruit and an additional $1 million US dollars to buy the way for his twin daughters to Harvard and Stanford. Wilson claims he is innocent and at large while appealing his case.

Only a handful of defendants remain to be convicted.

That includes the system’s mastermind, Singer, who pleaded guilty to a number of charges in 2019. Singer began secretly working with investigators before the case became public and helped the government build massive law enforcement. He is expected to be sentenced in September.