Agustin F. Huneeus, the Napa vintner who pleaded guilty for his role in the college admissions scandal dubbed "Varsity Blues" by the FBI, has been sentenced to five months in prison. A federal judge in Boston issued the sentence today, also imposing a $100,000 fine and 500 hours of community service.
Huneeus, 53, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud on May 21, for his part in a nationwide scheme where wealthy parents used fraud and bribes to get their children spots at some of the nation's top universities. "Lying came naturally to Mr. Huneeus," a U.S. attorney told the courtroom at today's sentencing hearing.
Addressing the court before the sentence was handed down, Huneeus said, "Today is a hard day, a super hard day. I want more than anything to pay for my crime and atone for the harm I have caused... The consequences of my crime have been devastating to my friends and family. I am ashamed."
The scheme centered around college admissions consultant William "Rick" Singer, 58, who pleaded guilty to racketeering, conspiracy, fraud and money laundering charges and has cooperated with authorities. Singer's sentencing date hasn't been set. More than 52 defendants have now faced charges in the case, including 13 coaches, two entrance exam administrators and 35 wealthy parents, from actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman to wealthy executives, accused of trying to secure admissions for their kids at elite schools like Stanford, Yale and USC.
The Justice Department presented evidence, including wiretapped phone calls, that Huneeus paid $50,000 to Singer to have a proctor improve his daughter's SAT score by correcting some of her answers. Huneeus also agreed to pay both Singer's foundation and a coach at USC a total of $250,000 to secure his daughter a spot on the school's water polo team, even though she was not a top athlete and with the understanding she would not have to play.
Federal prosecutors have pushed hard for jail time for the parents, including 15 months and a $95,000 fine for Huneeus. In sentencing memos, they noted that he was willing to pay up to $300,000 and embraced both the testing and athletics schemes. Unlike many of the parents, Huneeus told his daughter about it. Prosecutors said Singer met with Huneeus and his daughter in October 2018 to discuss the scheme, and Huneeus told his daughter to have a "keep-your-mouth-shut mentality" about it. Huneeus also suggested one of his other daughters could take the SAT for her sister, saying they looked alike.
"He knew what he wanted, that was a fraudulent advantage for his daughter. He knew how to get it, and he pushed for that result," prosecutor Justin O'Connell told U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani in the courtroom today.
A lawyer for Huneeus told the court that, unlike other accused parents in the case, Huneeus did not take a college spot away from a more deserving student because he was arrested before his daughter enrolled. He also pointed out that Huneeus had only paid $100,000 of the promised $300,000 before the scheme fell apart.
Talwani disagreed, telling Huneeus she was bothered that he went ahead with the fraud even though his daughter knew about it. Talwani pointed out that by involving his daughter in the discussion, Huneeus put his own child in harm's way. You "put the child in a position where they would worry the government could be prosecuting them for a felony," she said.
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The conviction has already impacted his future in wine. Both the federal government and the state of California could potentially revoke the licenses of Huneeus Vintners' wineries if a convicted felon is in an executive position. In March, shortly after his arrest, Huneeus stepped down from his job as CEO, handing control to his retired father, Agustin C. Huneeus. In July, Nick Withers, a veteran of Constellation Brands, was hired as president.
"To ensure smooth operations of Huneeus Vintners, Agustin C. Huneeus Sr., founder of Huneeus Vintners and Quintessa, has been appointed to represent the family's interest in Huneeus Vintners. Agustin Francisco Huneeus Jr. has stepped down from his position," Leslie Sullivan, estates director for the company, told Wine Spectator via email.
Huneeus Vintners was founded by the elder Huneeus and his wife, Valeria. Agustin C. built the Chilean winery Concha y Toro into an international success before immigrating to the United States during political unrest and creating a small empire around Franciscan Winery.
After his father sold Franciscan to Constellation Brands in 1999, Agustin F. stayed on board, eventually becoming chief executive of Constellation's fine-wine division before joining his father at the new family company. The family had held onto Quintessa Estate, which became the foundation of Huneeus Vintners. Today the company also owns Faust, Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma and Benton Lane in Oregon. Their biggest splash came when they bought The Prisoner wine brand from Dave Phinney in 2010, expanded it, and then sold it in 2016 to Constellation for $285 million.
In his pre-sentencing letter to Judge Talwani, Huneeus asked for a two-month sentence. He noted that he had already lost his career. "This experience will define the rest of my life and it's up to me whether it will define me in a good or bad way. I want to pay my dues and feel clean again," Huneeus wrote. "I tried to take a spot from the very students the system was stacked against." Huneeus is scheduled to report to federal prison on Nov. 4.
With reporting by Aaron Romano