Napa Valley vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr. charged in college admissions scandal
Two North Bay residents are among 50 people indicted in a sweeping college admissions scandal revealed Tuesday by Boston federal prosecutors, who say wealthy parents facilitated fraud and conspiracy on behalf of their children and collectively spent $25 million to bribe university personnel to designate them athletic recruits even in cases when the students did not play the sport involved.
Agustin Huneeus Jr., president of Napa Valley’s Huneeus Vintners, and Marci Palatella, who has Healdsburg ties and is CEO of a Burlingame-based liquor distribution company, are among 33 parents charged in the case.
Both got their kids into the University of Southern California through remarkably similar paths, according to the indictment.
They paid a high price, too, if the indictment holds firm, though Palatella, whose husband is former San Francisco 49er Lou Palatella, paid a significantly higher one, at more than $500,000. He is not charged in the case.
Huneeus and Palatella now face federal charges for alleged mail and wire fraud as a result.
There is no word yet about the status of their children, though authorities said the beneficiaries of the alleged deceit often were unaware of the intrigue playing out around them.
Neither Huneeus nor Palatella Tuesday could be reached for comment.
Prosecutors say the parents involved in the case plotted to get their kids into some of the nation’s elite colleges, in part by using a college entrance exam cheating scheme through which they obtained test-taking time extensions by falsifying learning disabilities. They also arranged to have their students take the exams at one of two testing locations in Houston, Texas, or West Hollywood, where a stand-in could take the exam, provide the answers or correct the students’ answers.
At the center of the scandal is William Rick Singer, of Newport Beach, owner of The Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key, and CEO of the Key Worldwide Foundation, its nonprofit arm and what the prosecutors called a “purported charity.”
Singer, an admissions counselor who directed parents about positioning their students for college applications, directed certain clients to make payments to the foundation that they then wrote off on their taxes, in effect disguising bribes made to college administrators and coaches, prosecutors say.
Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the federal government and obstruction of justice and has been cooperating with law enforcement.
Huneeus, 53, of San Francisco, oversees the winery operation started by his father, Agustin, who came from his native Chile in the 1970s to make his mark in the U.S. wine industry.
In 2009, the company formed a partnership with Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, known for its top flight pinot noir. It now owns the winery and is supposed to open the Flowers Vineyard & Winery tasting room on Westside Road this summer at the old VML Winery space. It also has in its portfolio the Quintessa estate in Rutherford and the Faust label for cabernet sauvignon and Illumination for sauvignon blanc.
He appeared before Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in San Francisco on Tuesday and was released on a $1 million unsecured bond and surrendered his passport. His next court appearance will be on March 29 at the federal courthouse in Boston.