Barber: Healdsburg woman swept up in college admissions scandal

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I logged onto my glowing screen Tuesday morning and saw that there was yet another blossoming college sports scandal. Here we go again, I thought. Give it a couple weeks, and the NCAA will reprimand a few lower-level assistant coaches and shame a low-income mom or two.

But this was a different sort of scandal. It has nothing to do with parking-garage payments to highly recruited athletes. It’s about kids who weren’t recruited as athletes at all, and the things their parents would do to get them into prestigious universities.

You can read all about it in our news section, but to boil it down: An “admissions consultant” named Rick Singer allegedly collected millions of dollars from parents, and paid some of it to a small (as far as we know) group of college coaches and administrators to help the kids gain admission to those schools.

It’s a fascinating, nauseating grift, and we can look at it through the prism of one of the parents that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts has charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and something called “honest services mail fraud.”

That parent is Marci Palatella. I pick on her because, one, she has a listed residence in Healdsburg (as well as one in Hillsborough, in San Mateo County) and, two, because her husband — and presumably the student’s father, though he is not a defendant in this case — is Lou Palatella, who played guard and linebacker for the 49ers in the 1950s. This is, after all, the sports page.

Here’s a few things we know about the Palatellas. Marci is 63 years old. Lou is 85. Her Facebook page, since deleted, indicated they have two sons. The boys seem to have attended high school in Atherton, not in Sonoma County. The older one is 19. The Facebook timeline, viewed alongside the indictment, positioned him as the young man whose route to USC was paved with fraud.

Marci Palatella is the CEO of International Beverage, a liquor distribution company. She and Lou own and operate several bourbon distilleries, including Preservation Distillery, which is located in Bardstown, Kentucky. It’s in Nelson County, which the company’s website refers to as “Kentucky Bourbon’s equivalent to the Napa Valley.”

My efforts to reach the Palatella parents by phone Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The criminal complaint made public Tuesday is a lurid little window into moneyed America. According to federal authorities, Marci Palatella told her son’s high school that he would be taking the SAT exam in Los Angeles on March 11, 2017, during a trip to visit colleges, then paid an accomplice of Singer $75,000 to supply answers for the test.

The athletic element, which is much stranger, came next. Even with a fantastically inflated SAT score — 1,410 out of 1,600 points, according to the indictment — Palatella was worried that USC wouldn’t accept her son. Singer told her the path was through sports.

In an email exchange, Palatella reminded Singer that her son had dropped out of football before his senior year of high school, in part because he had been told he was too small to play in college. She wondered whether a powerhouse program like USC’s would really recruit him.

But Singer wasn’t suggesting that Palatella’s son would suit up for the Trojans. The mere appearance of interest from the football team would be enough to gain admission. Palatella emailed a photo of her son in a prep football uniform to Singer, who forwarded it to Laura Janke, a women’s soccer assistant coach who was in on the scam. Janke created a football profile for the boy, inventing honors earned and championships won. USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel then presented Palatella’s son to the university’s subcommittee for athletic admissions, describing him a long snapper.

Heinel emailed Palatella’s son a conditional letter of acceptance on Nov. 30, 2017. Marci Palatella mailed a check for $100,000 to Heinel the next day, payable to the Women’s Athletic Board. The mother would later mail $400,000 to Singer’s headquarters, authorities said.

All told, Palatella allegedly spent $575,000 to secure a place for her incoming freshman. Geez, doesn’t anybody donate a science building anymore?

The worst part, not just in Palatella’s case but for all the accused parties, is that it’s the students who are likely to suffer the most shame and embarrassment now that everything has gone public. Palatella seemed to understand this all along.

At one point, according to the indictment, Singer asked her if she were willing to pay “several hundred thousand as a donation” to make this scheme happen. Her reply: “Money, for the right environment, Yes. But he can never know.”

Now everyone knows.

The typical college sports scandal involves a football player or men’s basketball player accepting cash, or a car, to play for a specific school. And my reaction at this point is, who cares? These athletes should all be getting cuts of the revenue they’re bringing to their institutions. In the end, who gives a damn if the quarterback for, say, Florida State, is receiving more than the quarterback for LSU?

This admissions scandal feels entirely different. Think of the students who benefited. These are rich kids. Some of them are probably fine people who will bring benefit to the world. But over the course of their lives, they have received every advantage imaginable — private schooling, tutors, trips abroad and, most important, freedom from worry about where the next meal, or next rent payment, will come from. And still they couldn’t get into their schools of choice.

So someone rigged the game for them, and their parents took advantage. Now think of the students whose spots they took at USC, or Texas, or Stanford — or at my alma mater, UCLA, which is also involved. We’ll never know who these other students were. But it’s a good bet some of them lacked the resources that the Palatella family enjoyed. I’m sure these unknown teenagers worked their butts off in high school, checked all the boxes. And got bumped by a fake long snapper.

I don’t put most of the blame on the families for this mess. Yes, they were culpable. But the real villains are Singer and, even more, the college coaches and administrators who took the bribes. Universities, despite their unquenchable addiction to money, still hold a place of reverence for me. They proclaim their dedication to learning in an age when it seems no one wants to learn anything. Janke and Heinel and the people like them subverted this ideal and added one more reason for people to be suspicious of higher learning.

On the other hand, I’m not saying we should feel sorry for the parents who suddenly found their names atop public documents. Palatella paid more than half a million dollars to the people shaking her down. However, during a phone conversation with Singer in October of 2018, taped by the law enforcement agents with whom Singer was then cooperating, Palatella assured him that she was writing off the “donations” she had made to get her son into USC.

Singer had set up a nonprofit organization to funnel the money. If Palatella hadn’t been caught, the money she paid him would be fully tax deductible.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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