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News Brief: College Admissions Scandal, Death Penalty, Pell Sentenced


If you're a wealthy family, you certainly enjoy some advantages when you're sending your kids to college.


Potentially phenomenal advantages that are considered within the rules - people donate big money to schools or lean on their famous names or claim legacy slots at the elite schools they attended. Yet, federal prosecutors say that for dozens of parents, these advantages were not enough.

Working through a consultant, they allegedly paid for fake test results. They allegedly bought bogus athletic scholarships and other fraudulent advantages for their kids. FBI special agent Joe Bonavolonta helped to identify the parents through an investigation code-named Varsity Blues.


JOSEPH BONAVOLONTA: This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy, literally.

GREENE: And for more, we're joined by Elissa Nadworny, from NPR's education team, who's been covering this. Hi, Elissa.


GREENE: What exactly happened here?

NADWORNY: (Laughter) So this is really a story about a bunch of wealthy parents trying to scam their way into elite universities. So according to the Justice Department, 33 parents paid, quote, "enormous sums" of money - so we're talking half a million dollars, in some cases - to a man named William Rick Singer, in exchange for fabricating academic and athletic credentials and to arrange bribes. Here's Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney, District of Massachusetts, announcing the charges on Tuesday.


ANDREW LELLING: We're talking about deception and fraud - fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

GREENE: Wow. OK, so you're buying fake credentials, fake pictures of students, fake test scores. How were these things actually used to make a difference and get slots in these schools?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So there's two main ways that they went about doing this. The first is through falsifying tests, such as the SAT and the ACT. According to the Justice Department, Singer would have parents request an accommodation, so to give students more time on their tests. It's often used for students with disabilities. During that extended time, a proctor would provide answers, or in some cases, after a student took the test, their answers would be altered for an improved score.

GREENE: They would change the answers to make sure the scores were higher?

NADWORNY: Yep. And in some cases, another person altogether would actually sit for the exam.


NADWORNY: (Laughter) Yeah. The other way that they did this was through college athletics, so coaches were in on it. So they're taking bribes to pretend to recruit students to sports like lacrosse, sailing, tennis. Many of the students didn't even play these sports competitively. So in some cases, coaches made fake athletic records, and parents would have to pay for their kid's face to basically be Photoshopped to look like they were playing the sport in question.

GREENE: It would look like they were, like, some lacrosse star in high school, even though they had no idea how to play lacrosse?

NADWORNY: Yeah, exactly.

GREENE: So what is happening at the universities that are involved here? What are they saying?

NADWORNY: So the schools themselves have not been charged.


NADWORNY: So students from involved - or from - schools that are involved say they're the victims here. So they're cooperating with the investigation. We've seen prominent coaches get put on leave or be fired. According to prosecutors, the majority of the students involved, they're still enrolled. They have yet to graduate, and it's unclear what's going to happen to them. In many of these cases, court records show that students were actually kept in the dark from their parents.

GREENE: The parents were just doing this on their own. This is just amazing. I mean, you cover education. Does this tell us something we might not have realized about, you know, elite college admissions?

NADWORNY: Well, so there's lots of ways that privilege and wealth permeate elite college admissions. Like, we've known that. You mentioned, you know, people donate money for buildings to curry favor in admissions.


NADWORNY: There's also legacy, which gives preferential treatment to students of alumni. So, you know, I think this case highlights some weak spots in the admissions cycle - so college sports and these entrance exams. It's also important to remember these are highly selective schools, so just a small portion of students get in, and I think that's what makes this story so upsetting. Like, we know how hard it is to get in. Like, we want to believe that if we work hard, like, we'll be able to get there.

INSKEEP: It's also a reminder there's a huge debate about income inequality in this country. So often, experts and well-meaning people will say, education is the answer to inequality, and what we have here is a symptom of how even that benefit is reserved for the very few, in many cases.

NADWORNY: Absolutely.

GREENE: Yeah, this case has the potential to expose a lot. NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks so much, Elissa.



GREENE: So California's governor says the many people on death row in the state are going to remain there.

INSKEEP: He will not allow them to be sent for execution. An order expected from Governor Gavin Newsom will put an executive moratorium on the death penalty in the state. Newsom is a longtime critic of the death penalty system, which he calls a failure.

GREENE: And let's talk to Scott Shafer, who reports from member station KQED in San Francisco. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: All right, so walk us through exactly what the governor is doing here.

SHAFER: Yeah, so it really is several things. The most important is that this order he's going to sign places a moratorium on executions in California, basically by giving a reprieve to the men and women, mostly men, who are on death row - so suspending the executions for a while. The second thing it does is closes the state's execution chamber at San Quentin Prison, and that's almost a formality since it really hasn't been used at all since 2006. That was the last time California put somebody to death.

And finally, it withdraws the state's lethal injection protocol. It's been under review for several years now. That's why there haven't been any executions. And that's important because there are some 25 inmates on death row right now who've exhausted their legal appeals. So if executions were to begin, we would have sort of a season of executions in California.

GREENE: So one big central question here is whether the governor can do this at a moment when it seems like California voters are against him on this issue. I mean, voters in the state twice rejected measures to repeal the death penalty. And Newsom actually talked about this in 2016. He was talking to The Modesto Bee, when a repeal was on the ballot. Let's listen.


GAVIN NEWSOM: My position has always been, if ever I was in a position to actually be accountable, I would be accountable to the will of the voters. I would not get my personal opinions in the way of the public's right to make a determination of where they want to take us (unintelligible).

GREENE: So now he's governor. Is he doing exactly what he said he wouldn't do?

SHAFER: Not really. You know, the governor in California has the power to issue reprieves, and he can do that. That's what he's doing. Now, if you support the death penalty, you're going to be very angry because, you know, in 2016, voters passed another ballot measure to speed up executions - narrowly passed it, 51 to 49.

So if you're one of those folks who voted for that, you're going to say, hey, wait a minute, I voted for this already, and you're - you know, you're screwing it up. So - but technically, he isn't eliminating the death penalty. He's just suspending it.

GREENE: OK, technically, he's just suspending it, and he has the power to do it, but given what voters have said, I mean, politically, this could be quite a challenge for him as this goes forward. Well, let me ask you this. As this goes forward, I mean, there's 737 people on death row in the state, I think more than in any state in the country - what happens to them now?

SHAFER: Well, kind of the same thing that's been happening for the past 13 years, David. The population is getting older. There's a saying, or a joke really, that the leading cause of death on death row in California is old age, and that's pretty much true. The governor's order doesn't change anyone's conviction or their sentence.

No one's getting out of prison. There'll be no executions as long as Newsom is governor, but, you know, that could change if a new governor comes in or if there's a lawsuit that somehow forces California to change the policy and kind of get rid of those reprieves.

GREENE: All right, Scott Shafer reports from member station KQED in San Francisco, giving us that news about the governor's moves today. Scott, thanks a lot.

SHAFER: You're welcome.


GREENE: So how much prison time is enough for the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with sexual abuse?

INSKEEP: An Australian judge gave his answer, sentencing Cardinal George Pell to six years for the sexual abuse of two boys in 1996. Judge Peter Kidd acknowledged the possibility that Pell may not live to be released from prison. He's 77 years old now. This is still not a satisfying moment for one of the victims, who issued a statement read here by lawyer Vivian Waller.


VIVIAN WALLER: It is hard to me, for the time being, to take comfort in this outcome. I appreciate that the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child. However, there is no rest for me.

GREENE: Let's turn to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, who covers the Vatican and has been following this whole issue for some time now. She joins us from Rome. Hi, Sylvia.


GREENE: So take us back a little bit if you can, and remind us the history in the case of Cardinal Pell.

POGGIOLI: Well, two weeks ago when a gag order was lifted, we learned that, in December, Pell had been found guilty on five charges of sexually abusing two minors in Melbourne's cathedral, where he was archbishop, and he was immediately taken to jail. Today, Judge Peter Kidd set a non-parole period of three years and eight months. He described Pell's conduct as staggering arrogance and said he had not shown remorse.

Now, Pell faced a maximum 10 years for each charge, and the light sentence, you know, disappointed a lot of the lawyers of the victims. But the judge said Pell had an otherwise blameless life, and that, given his age, he doesn't pose a risk of reoffending. Nevertheless, he had to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

GREENE: And this goes back, I mean, to accusations from years ago, right?

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. And there are other cases now. There's another of the victims who died. His family now is considering a civil suit against Pell.

GREENE: So he is maintaining his innocence and has even filed an appeal here, so this might not be the end of this case.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. And now he's had nothing publicly, but, you know, this is really a huge down - a huge blow to the - this is the downfall of a prominent Vatican figure. He's the most senior Catholic official found guilty in a secular court for sex abuse of minors. In 2014, Pope Francis made him head of a new ministry, economic affairs, with the task of putting the Vatican's finances in order. But, you know, then he had to take a leave of absence three years ago and return to Australia to face trial.

GREENE: So this has been a moment, Sylvia, when the Vatican has been grappling with this issue - not enough as many people would like. So how do they respond to the case of someone so, so senior being actually, I mean, sent to prison?

POGGIOLI: Well, when we - two weeks ago, the Vatican said only it will wait for an appeal, but it also announced its doctrinal office will investigate on its own, but Pell is no longer head of the economic ministry. You know, this is just one of several big blows for the Vatican. French - last week, French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin offered to resign after he was given a six-month suspended sentence for failing to report allegations of abuse of minors by a priest. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Costa Rica are raiding the offices of a church tribunal as part of a probe, and in the U.S., several attorney generals are investigating local churches.

I think we see this is the end of a centuries-old practice of those silent agreements in which governments had a hands-off, noninterference policy towards the Catholic Church. They can no - officials can no longer expect - they're going to have to be held accountable by civil justice systems.

GREENE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli on NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLITZ&SUPPE FEAT. KUPLA'S "MUTINY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.