Barber: Healdsburg woman swept up in college admissions scandal
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.