WASHINGTON - A prominent Miami developer and investor who was among a slew of wealthy parents charged with paying hefty bribes to get their children into elite universities was pardoned early Wednesday by President Donald Trump.
Robert Zangrillo was arrested in March 2019 in a college admissions bribery scheme that ensnared TV stars, businesspeople and athletic coaches across the U.S.
Federal prosecutors in Boston who brought the case, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, accused Zangrillo of paying $250,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a transfer in 2018.
The White House said in a statement explaining its decision that Zangrillo's daughter "did not have others take standardized tests for her and she is currently earning a 3.9 GPA" at USC. The White House described him as a "well-respected business leader and philanthropist."
A lawyer for Zangrillo and a USC spokesperson declined to comment.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said the pardon of Zangrillo, "who is charged with bribery and fraud, including having his own daughter knowingly participate in a scheme to lie to USC about her accomplishments and grades, illustrates precisely why Operation Varsity Blues was necessary in the first place."
"It is the highest calling of the criminal justice system to hold all people equally to account, regardless of wealth or privilege," Lelling said in a emailed statement.
Zangrillo, who founded the private investment firm Dragon Global, was accused of working with the corrupt admissions consultant at the center of the scheme to fraudulently get his daughter into USC a year after she was rejected.
Authorities said Zangrillo and the admissions consultant, Rick Singer, agreed to try to get her admitted as a crew recruit. Ultimately she was not presented as a recruit, investigators said, but a senior athletics official who is also charged in the scheme placed her on a "VIP list" for transfer students and advocated on her behalf.
After his daughter got in, authorities said Zangrillo paid $50,000 to the USC women's athletics and $200,000 to Singer's sham charity.
Zangrillo denied paying any bribes. His lawyers called his payment to the university a "donation indistinguishable from the vast numbers of other donations by parents of students made to USC and apparently to other universities and colleges nationwide."
The White House said Zangrillo's bid for a pardon was supported by several prominent people, including Trump megadonor Geoff Palmer, a California real estate developer, and Tom Barrack, a longtime Trump friend and real estate investor who is a USC trustee.
But a Barrack spokesperson said in an email that Barrack "had nothing whatsoever" to do with it.
"He never intervened and never had discussion with anyone about it. All reports to the contrary are patently false," his spokesperson said.
Zangrillo was one of nearly 60 people charged in the scheme, which inflamed longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions. More than 40 people have pleaded guilty. Zangrillo was supposed to stand trial in September.
Those who have pleaded guilty in the scheme include Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin's fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli. Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for paying $15,000 to rig her daughter’s entrance exam score.
Loughlin was released from prison last month after spending two months behind bars for paying half a million dollars to get her two daughters into USC. Giannulli is currently serving a five-month sentence at a federal prison in California but asked a judge last week if he can serve the remainder of his sentence in home confinement.