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Internal probe finds admissions scandal at University of San Diego limited to one coach



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Students walk near Sierra Hall on April 10 at the University of San Diego. An internal investigation into a bribery admissions scandal at the USD has concluded that the scheme did not touch any other school employees, coaches or students other than the former men's head basketball coach and two students who were accepted as athletic recruits. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

By Kristina Davis
The San Diego Union-Tribune


SAN DIEGO — An internal investigation into a bribery admissions scandal at the University of San Diego has concluded that the scheme did not touch any other school employees, coaches or students other than the former men's head basketball coach and two teens who were accepted as athletic recruits.


"There is no evidence this was widespread on campus and no evidence of improper conduct by anyone else on campus but one individual," USD President James T. Harris III said in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune Thursday.


The university released a five-page executive summary of the report on Thursday but declined to provide the full investigation. A part of the executive summary was also redacted to protect student privacy. The school's Board of Trustees hired an outside law firm, Snell & Wilmer, to conduct the investigation.


The investigation was launched following the bombshell federal prosecution out of Boston in March that implicated several elite colleges across the country and a roster of sports coaches and admissions officers who accepted bribes from wealthy — and sometimes famous — parents to accept their children as subpar athletic recruits.


USD was identified in Department of Justice charging documents as accepting two such prospective students, the son and daughter of Robert Flaxman, a wealthy developer who lives in Laguna Beach.


The university's investigation found no evidence that the scheme spread beyond the two recruits, or that any other USD employee was knowingly involved besides Lamont Smith, who headed the men's basketball program at the time.


"There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone in admissions was involved with this coach in a nefarious or inappropriate way," Harris said.


Flaxman is among 34 parents charged in the case thus far and has since pleaded guilty. But Smith, although implicated in court documents, has not been charged, or even publicly identified by prosecutors.


"That is the great mystery to many, why he hasn't been charged," Harris said.


Smith resigned from his position last year in the wake of a domestic violence arrest.


While the internal investigation found evidence of Smith's participation in the recruiting scheme, it was unable to corroborate allegations that he received any bribes. The investigation, however, was limited to documents in possession of the university.


The bulk of the internal investigation relied on some 60,000 emails and 20 interviews with current and former USD employees, Harris said. It was not clear if Smith was interviewed.


The mastermind behind the admissions scheme was William "Rick" Singer, who ran a college placement firm called The Key out of Newport Beach catering to rich families. Over the years, he had culled an impressive list of contacts of college administrators and coaches around the country, and he used those relationships to begin to get some clients in what he called "the side door" — as athletic recruits.


Many students were recruited for sports they didn't even play, according to court records.


For Flaxman's kids, Singer turned to Martin Fox, who runs a tennis academy in Houston, as a middle-man in the admissions process at USD, according to prosecutors.


Fox is also an influential figure in grassroots basketball, and Smith grew up in Texas and regularly recruited in that state. The two may have crossed paths earlier.


Harris said the first indication of a problem came when the DOJ called him and asked for more information on Smith and the two recruits.


"I was a bit surprised," Harris recalled. The DOJ did not give any hint as to what they were investigating. "Why would the DOJ be interested in these individuals?" He said the university cooperated with the inquiries but didn't find out the true scope of the case until the day before it was announced in Boston.


Court records unsealed alongside that March announcement lay out how the scheme worked in this instance at USD.


In the fall of 2015, Singer sent Flaxman's son's ACT scores and school transcripts to Fox, who then forwarded them to the unidentified USD coach, according to the complaint. A day later, Singer assured Flaxman in an email that he "spoke to USD" and that "they are interested in helping."


The father asked for a status update about a week later, and Singer answered: "The coach I am working with has not gotten his scheduled appointment with Admissions for all of his recruitable athletes. He is on board to help and has (your son's) materials. I am sure I will receive a call on next steps soon."


A USD admissions counselor gave the coach the green light about 10 days later to recruit the teen.


The boy's application, which was crafted by The Key, highlighted his volunteer work with an elite youth sports team, according to the complaint.


After the son was admitted in March 2016, Flaxman wired $250,000 to The Key's charitable foundation. The foundation issued a $100,000 payment to Fox, who later advised he had paid the coach for helping admit the teen, according to the complaint. It was not known how much of that amount the coach was allegedly paid.

Flaxman used his same contacts to get his daughter admitted to USD as a recruit to the same team, as a manager.


The USD investigation further revealed that Smith represented to the admissions office that he'd secured funding for the manager position, although the law firm found no evidence of funding and concluded the statement was likely fabricated, the report states.


To get the daughter's test scores up, Flaxman went an extra step, paying $75,000 so an ACT proctor would help out with answers while administering the test to her in Houston in a special session.


The daughter ended up not attending USD. The son did, but he never played on the team. The university would not say whether he was still a student at USD.


Flaxman pleaded guilty in May to fraud conspiracy, admitting he paid to fix his daughter's ACT test score. He is set to be sentenced on Oct. 18.


The investigation did find that Singer and other "relevant individuals," including the ACT proctor who helped Flaxman's daughter, made contact with four other USD employees.


"We did a thorough examination of each of those contacts and found no evidence of inappropriate contact whatsoever," Harris said. The summary does not elaborate on the nature of the contact or the departments in which the employees worked.

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