The Blurry Line Between Influence and Corruption


In 2019 federal authorities announced charges against more than 50 parents, coaches and college administrators in a wide-ranging conspiracy known in law enforcement circles as “Operation Varsity Blues.” The object of the conspiracy was simple: well-healed parents, seemingly desperate to secure admission for their children into the nation’s top colleges, used money and influence to obtain otherwise inaccessible placements for their children. The defendants included Hollywood stars and financiers, all of whom were willing to pay to bypass the traditional admissions process by falsifying their children’s athletic credentials. Their children, fraudulently designated as athletic recruits, were able to secure admission to top schools in exchange for their parents paying thousands of dollars in bribes to school officials.

This sweeping scandal not only revealed systemic flaws in the admissions and recruitment processes for colleges nationwide, but also drove home a more fundamental point. Money shouldn’t be able to buy access, but the underlying behavior sounds vaguely familiar, no? You have no doubt heard of families who use influence to secure placement for their children in various educational institutions. Patently offensive? Perhaps. Unfair? Yup. But we can likely agree that this behavior is more frequent than we would care to admit.

As uncomfortable a topic as this may be, this scheme brought into focus the question of where the authorities draw the line between influence and bribery. For instance, it ostensibly is legal to donate to an Ivy League institution when your child is a sophomore in high school in hopes of currying favor with the college admissions officers a few years later. But can we also attempt to curry such favor at the high school level? What about preschool? Those scenarios seem trickier, arguably more problematic. To illuminate where to draw the line, we offer a few takeaways from the college admissions scandal:

  1. Beware of the “quid pro quo.” In the situation where parents are donating money to a school, there are certain behaviors that prove especially suspect. To be sure, if the donation is in the form of undesignated cash or is in the form of a gift to a specific school official or is not properly reflected in the books and records of the school or the child’s credentials are falsified in the process, these are red flags for investigators. Even if the motivation is “pure,” (i.e., parents simply trying to get their child into the best school around), the method of payment and overall process must likewise be above-board.
  2. Schools need better internal controls. The schools who are the recipients of donations must develop a routinely applied vetting process to evaluate these “donations” in a transparent manner. Similar to the compliance programs found in private industry, schools need to develop stronger internal controls to signal to the public that the admissions process is equitable and not susceptible to undue influence.
  3. Dishonesty is contagious. Perhaps most importantly, this fraudulent admissions scheme directly involved children. The children were the purported “beneficiaries” of this scheme, but they were done no favors. These children were labeled “cheats” and “liars” and their lack of qualifications became front page news. Evaluating the impact our behavior will have on our children is not simply advisable; it is critical in teaching our children that influence cannot buy success.

Deb and Chris Gramiccioni met while serving as federal prosecutors in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. They recently co-founded Kingston Coventry LLC, a Service-Disabled Veteran Owned law firm with offices in Charleston and New Jersey. Check out for more information about Deb and Chris and the firm they founded.

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