Crime

A cog in the college admissions scandal speaks out

A former sailing coach who took a plea deal for shuffling bribes to Stanford’s athletic program says his colleagues knew where the money was coming from.

John Vandemoer leaves court after pleading guilty in the college admissions scandal, June 12, 2019, in Boston. Katherine Taylor / The New York Times


As California Route 92 cuts west through the Santa Cruz Mountains that separate Silicon Valley from Half Moon Bay, it takes little more than 10 miles to be transported from the bustling tech hub to a sleepy coastal hamlet where the summers are foggy, the surf is rugged and honey, artichokes, snap peas and cherries are sold by the side of the road.

It is a refuge from any tumult on the other side of the hills.

So it is not just serendipitous that John Vandemoer chose to rebuild his life there.

Vandemoer, who coached sailing at Stanford for 11 years, took a plea deal in a vast college admissions scheme that federal agents uncovered in 2019, calling it Operation Varsity Blues.

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Dozens of rich and powerful parents — actors, doctors, lawyers, real estate developers and private equity wizards — funneled millions of dollars through William Singer, a private admissions counselor. Singer, who is also known as Rick, conjured fake athletic résumés, doctored test scores and bribed coaches to get the children of his clients into the nation’s most exclusive universities as a preferred applicant — an athlete.

Vandemoer, who was fired by Stanford before the ink on his indictment had dried, will live the rest of his life as a felon — having served one day in jail and six months of house arrest after pleading guilty to a count of racketeering conspiracy. He also lost his career as a decorated coach and his family’s university-subsidized housing.

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Given all that, Vandemoer counts himself blessed to have landed a job at a small water engineering firm, putting to use a two-decades-old degree in geology.

The admissions plot generated a degree of rage and scorn that did not allow for nuance such as this: Vandemoer, unlike the others accused in the plot, did not personally gain in the transactions. He handed checks totaling $770,000 from Singer to Stanford development officers, who planned to use the money for new boats. No students entered Stanford because of Vandemoer, although he did designate two as athletic recruits without evaluating them.

“I’m lumped in with everybody else,” Vandemoer said. “Right now, I’m on Google being painted with the same brush as coaches who bought houses, took vacations and paid tuition with the money. I turned the money over to my employer, who is somehow a victim in this. It’s been devastating.”

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Stanford made for a ripe target.

Vandemoer, 43, has written a book, “Rigged Justice,” which will be released Tuesday, ahead of eight cases like his that are scheduled to go to trial in the coming months. In the book, Vandemoer details how he was duped by Singer and explains that he took a plea deal because a lengthy legal battle would have put him deeply in debt, as prosecutors had threatened to add more charges.

He also describes an environment that made Stanford a ripe target for Singer. Coaches in nonrevenue sports, which make up the vast majority of the university’s 36 teams, were pressured to raise money to fund their programs, he said, and top administrators raised few questions about the source of the gifts.

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Vandemoer wrote that when he handed over a $500,000 check from Singer to a senior administrator, she excitedly called Bernard Muir, the athletic director, over to show him the check. As Muir offered congratulations, Vandemoer said he started to explain who Singer was, but Muir cut him off, saying, “We know Rick.”

Dee Mostofi, a Stanford spokeswoman, said that Muir — who did not respond to a direct message seeking comment for this article — knew of Singer, but that he had not met him or spoken with him. Muir sent Singer a thank-you letter acknowledging the gift, which is a standard practice for large donations, Mostofi said.

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It seemed to Vandemoer as if Singer had everyone’s blessing. He appeared unannounced more than once in Vandemoer’s office in the athletic department, a sign, Vandemoer said, of the access Singer seemed to have had, as a key card is required to enter the building. And Adam Cohen, the associate head coach for men’s basketball, had been a conduit, telling Vandemoer that Singer, himself a former college basketball coach, was a good guy who could help him out.

In a Nov. 4, 2016, email that Vandemoer provided to The New York Times, Cohen wrote: “I wanted to touch base with you about Rick Singer and the possibility of the walk-on he has talked with you about. Are you free at all today for a quick conversation?”

Vandemoer answered about 40 minutes later, saying that he was traveling to Texas for a regatta but that he had reached out to an athletic department fundraising administrator to help work on it.

Cohen replied: “Thanks, John. Appreciate you getting back to me.”

(The potential student, according to Vandemoer, was the daughter of a Chinese pharmaceutical executive who had paid Singer $6.5 million to get her into Stanford. The daughter was admitted, but as a regular applicant without Vandemoer’s help because he had not flagged her as a recruited athlete.)

Mostofi said on Sunday night that Cohen had been introduced to Singer by someone who was not employed at Stanford, although she did not immediately specify who the person was or whether he or she had another connection to the university. Cohen did not recall endorsing Singer or a sailing recruit with Vandemoer, Mostofi said in an email.

Stanford announced late in 2019 that an internal review had determined that seven Stanford coaches were contacted by Singer, but that none besides Vandemoer had agreed to support one of his clients for financial considerations. (A former rowing coach, Craig Amerkhanian, said he was contacted by Singer in 2013.)

But the investigation, which included reviews of more than 35,000 records and interviews with about 55 people, was summarized for the public in only three pages, focused largely on how Stanford would strengthen its protocols to prevent another scheme. The university offered no details about how anyone at the university had helped Singer, wittingly or not, create a side door into Stanford through the athletic department.

Cohen, who was hired by Stanford seven months before he contacted Vandemoer about Singer, played down his relationship with Singer — “I’ll just say it’s not a relationship that is a deep relationship of any kind” — and would not say how they met.

“We were not involved,” Cohen said, referring to the basketball program. He declined to answer further questions, adding, “I’m not allowed to say anything about anything.”

An indictment led to a swift distancing.

On March 12, 2019, Vandemoer sat in federal court in Boston waiting to plead guilty the same day the majority of 57 indictments were announced. His phone pinged with an email from Stanford. It informed him that he had been fired.

He returned home and in the coming weeks packed his family’s belongings, pulled his children from Stanford’s day care, said goodbye to his neighbors — fellow Stanford coaches whose on-campus houses are subsidized by the university — and dumped 11 years’ worth of “Stanford Sailing” gear at a Goodwill drop-off in sight of the university’s football stadium. Then he headed to Half Moon Bay, where his family temporarily moved into the second home of a friend who was also a Stanford benefactor.

As he prepared for a sentencing hearing in June, he told himself that he deserved to go to jail. “I used shame as a warm blanket,” he said.

He avoided a lengthy prison sentence, but not public embarrassment.

Vandemoer chides himself for being wooed by Singer to classify two students as sailing recruits even though he had not thoroughly vetted them. The two potential sailors ultimately chose to attend other colleges. He should have asked more questions, he said, shown greater skepticism about the donations and been more meticulous.

Vandemoer, hoping for closure from his former employer, sat down with Stanford’s investigators in a conference room at the Palo Alto, California, offices of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett in fall 2019. He said one of the lawyers told him: “Look, we work for the trustees of Stanford. At the end of the day, they’re going to decide what gets released and what doesn’t.”

Vandemoer said he felt a switch flip: His shame turned to anger.

Since arriving at Stanford, Vandemoer was most at home on the water, coaching his sailors on how to read wind and feel currents the way he had learned growing up on Cape Cod. At work, he usually shrugged off his standing near the bottom of the athletic department totem pole.

Vandemoer mustered a laugh when Muir once joked at a meeting with several administrators that it was a good thing Vandemoer was wearing a hospital name tag because otherwise, nobody would remember his name. What cut deeper was that nobody asked why he had been at the hospital: His toddler daughter had been admitted with severe bronchitis.

So as he told his story to Stanford’s investigators, he wondered why no one had ever come to him when the indictments came down, noting that even federal prosecutors had acknowledged he did not enrich himself from the scheme. It reinforced the notion that he was simply an asset — a nameless, expendable cog in a corporation with a $29 billion endowment.

“They had plenty of opportunity to say, ‘Here’s an 11-year employee, dedicated to the students, all the money went to Stanford — we don’t see a ton of malicious intent, so let’s have a conversation about what happened,’” Vandemoer said.

“It seems backward,” he added. “I was part of that development game, but I wasn’t doing personal development — I was doing Stanford development.”

Questions about Stanford’s athletic funding and treatment of its own flared again when the university announced early during the coronavirus pandemic that it was dropping 11 varsity sports, including sailing, after the 2020-21 school year because they were a drain on the athletic department’s finances.

In June, after a concerted yearlong campaign that included the threat of two lawsuits, Stanford relented and said it would retain the sports.

Vandemoer got a new job and returned to the water.

For now, at least, Vandemoer has found a new career, working for Water Solutions, a small firm that specializes in building drinking water systems, including digging wells on rural land and helping urban factories with their own water sources. Glenn Reynolds, the company’s founder, whose son had sailed in a program run by Vandemoer’s wife, Molly, said Vandemoer had been a quick study with the right academic background and displayed a coach’s faculty for marshaling a team’s resources.

“My feeling was here’s the story we all heard in the news, but that’s one side of it,” Reynolds said when asked why he decided to hire Vandemoer. “When you learn that John never cashed the check, that Stanford wrote a thank-you letter to the donor and that John’s job required him to fundraise, I’m sitting there thinking this isn’t as black and white as the prosecution is laying it out.”

He added, “John’s sincerity comes out and shakes your hand.”

Vandemoer said therapy had helped him cope with the shame and anger he felt and also showed him how he could be a better husband and a better father to his children, Nicholas, 5, and Nora, 3. Writing the book, he said, was particularly therapeutic.

Vandemoer said he appreciated being able to leave work at the office and cherished weekends at home with the family and having a social life — time that he used to spend flying around the country to regattas. Still, he has managed to get out on the water, working with young sailors at the Peninsula Youth Sailing Foundation, where Molly is the director. Sailing, he said, still matters immensely to him.

In July, he traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, with a group of children ages 10 to 13.

Rolling up to the boat park triggered so many emotions — how would other coaches, his former colleagues, feel about seeing him? What would he tell them? The anxiety dissipated after a few handshakes, and by the next day, he felt a sense of ease, eyeing only the current and how the wind was hitting the sails.

These weren’t college sailors, but he wasn’t that coach anymore, either.

“I focus on the things I think matter now,” Vandemoer said. “It wasn’t about winning, it wasn’t about being the perfect athlete. It was about how to learn, how to fail and how to come back again. I feel like I can teach that a lot.”

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