A former Stanford University sailing coach accused of taking bribes from a corrupt college consultant is set to learn his punishment in federal court on Wednesday, becoming the first person sentenced in the nation’s largest-ever college admissions fraud prosecution.
Looming over his sentencing will be a larger question, about who should be considered a victim of the cheating scheme.
Unlike other coaches charged in the sweeping case, the sailing coach, John Vandemoer, did not pocket any money from the bribes. Mr. Vandemoer, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering, negotiated with the consultant to designate students as recruits to the Stanford sailing team even though they were not competitive sailors, giving them an advantage in the admissions process. In exchange, the consultant directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the sailing program.
The prosecutors have described Stanford and the other universities where they say athletic staff accepted bribes as victims of the admissions scheme, saying that they were cheated out of the “honest services” of their employees and the right to control their admissions process. Several of the universities have echoed the prosecution’s description of them as victims in their responses to the charges.
But the details of what happened at Stanford and some other schools raise questions about whether the universities bear some responsibility for what was essentially the sale of their recruiting slots and whether they could have prevented the fraud by more closely scrutinizing gifts.
Asked about Stanford’s level of responsibility for what happened, Brad Hayward, a spokesman, said, “We are determined to learn everything we can from this experience and ensure that the proper controls are in place to prevent fraudulent efforts like this in the future.”
Stanford is the only school where all of the money paid in connection with the scheme — $770,000 in total — actually went to university programs.
At several other schools, at least some part of the bribes made its way into university accounts. The University of Southern California, for instance, received more than $1.3 million in donations to its athletic programs that prosecutors have said were bribes, according to charging documents. Athletic programs at Wake Forest University and the University of Texas at Austin received smaller amounts, according to prosecutors.
The donations point to troubling pressures in the culture of college sports, where at least some coaches were willing to cross ethical and legal lines to raise money for their teams. Nine coaches were among the 50 people charged in the case, who also included Hollywood actresses and prominent figures from the worlds of law and finance. More than 20 people have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty so far, including five coaches.
Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University who has written extensively on college sports, said that universities had enabled the scheme by giving athletes preferential treatment in admissions.
“Without that system in place, none of this fraud could have taken place,” he said.
The money donated to the Stanford sailing team included $500,000 from a couple from China who prosecutors say paid William Singer, the college consultant at the center of the scandal, $6.5 million in connection with their daughter’s application to Stanford, according to prosecutors.
The charge against Mr. Vandemoer centered on two other students, for whom Mr. Singer promised donations if Mr. Vandemoer would recruit them. Mr. Singer made donations, prosecutors say, though the two students ultimately did not complete their applications to Stanford.
As to what Stanford knew about the donations, Mr. Hayward, the university spokesman, said that several fund-raising staff members knew that all three donations had come from Mr. Singer’s nonprofit and also knew the identity of the couple behind the $500,000 donation and that their child had just been admitted to the university.
Mr. Hayward said Stanford has hired a law firm to conduct a review of its athletic recruitment process, as well as the procedures around the acceptance of gifts for athletic programs.
In the meantime, he said, the university was making changes, including requiring a top athletic official to confirm athletic credentials for each recruited athlete, as well as educating development officers “about the need to know prospective donors as well as their intermediaries and the reason for a prospective gift or pledge.”
Mr. Hayward also said that Mr. Vandemoer was not the only coach at Stanford to have had contact with Mr. Singer. Based on “preliminary inquiries,” he said, “we understand that several coaches were contacted by Singer in recent years. However, thus far we have not identified any coaches, beyond John Vandemoer, who participated in Singer’s fraud.”
The case highlights how much pressure some coaches feel to raise funds for their programs. That pressure can create potential conflicts.
“Does the fact that a family could come in and help support the program make a difference sometimes? I’d say yes,” said Glenn Crooks, a former head women’s soccer coach at Rutgers University. He specified that he was not speaking of cases where the student couldn’t actually play the sport.
Peter Roby, the former athletic director at Northeastern University, said that he remembered having conversations with coaches when they were recruiting athletes from well-off families, and the parents had said that they would like to donate to the program.
“I made it very clear to the coach at the time that there is no quid pro quo — don’t give anybody the impression that, if they make that gift, that their kid is going to get in school or is going to play right away because of it,” Mr. Roby said. “Make sure that we are agnostic about the connection between the two. And I also made it a point of saying to coaches, ‘I want to make sure that the reason you’re taking this particular athlete is because they can help your program on the field, and not because their parents are wealthy and they’re going to make a donation while their kid is there, because that’s not fair.’”
Asked about their responsibility in the case, officials from the other universities that received donations in the scheme offered varying responses.
Wake Forest received $50,000 from Mr. Singer’s foundation, which prosecutors have said was part of a bribe to the women’s volleyball coach to recruit the daughter of one of Mr. Singer’s clients. The coach, William Ferguson, has pleaded not guilty.
A spokeswoman, Katie Neal, said that there was nothing that would have raised suspicion about the gift.
“When Wake Forest received the $50,000, there was nothing to suggest it was anything other than a philanthropic gift to our athletics program from a student’s family,” she said.
The University of Texas received $15,000 from Mr. Singer’s foundation and $25,000 that the former men’s tennis coach, Michael Center, said came from an anonymous donor, a spokesman said. The money was used to help renovate tennis facilities. Mr. Center has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud.
The spokesman, J.B. Bird, said, “As part of our internal review, we are determining whether the university could have identified or prevented this incident while making sure we have systems in place to prevent the kind of fraud that happened in 2015. The contributions to the tennis facilities had no apparent connection to institutional decisions about admissions, but scrutinizing such donations will be a part of our processes moving forward.”
U.S.C. did not respond to questions about the money it received as part of the scheme.