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Update: Napa Valley vintner, TV stars and coaches charged in college bribery scheme

BOSTON — A Napa Valley vintner as well as Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were charged along with nearly 50 other people Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents bribed college coaches and insiders at testing centers to help get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country, federal prosecutors said.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the $25 million federal bribery case.

He called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

At least nine athletic coaches and dozens of parents were among those charged. A total of 46 people were arrested by midday, including Huffman and Loughlin, in an investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, federal authorities said.

Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to label their children as recruited athletes, to alter test scores and to have others take online classes to boost their children’s chances of getting into schools.

Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission, officials said.

“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.

Among the implicated parents was Agustin Huneeus, Jr., a Napa Valley vintner and son of Quintessa estate’s founder Agustin Huneeus.

Huneeus, a San Francisco resident, was involved in a college entrance exam cheating scheme and recruitment scheme in 2017 and 2018 to help get his daughter into the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors wrote. He bribed Donna Heinel, USC senior women’s athletic director, and Jovan Vavic, USC water polo coach, to get his daughter into the school through its water polo program, prosecutors allege.

Huneeus worked with nonprofit the Key Worldwide Foundation to pull the scheme off, prosecutors say.

Huneeus paid $50,000 as a charitable donation to an unnamed witness who co-founded the organization. That witness arranged for another witness to try to doctor the SAT exam of Huneeus’ daughter, attorneys wrote. He arranged to have his daughter take the exam at the West Hollywood Test Center, and the second unnamed witness flew from Tampa to Los Angeles to proctor and correct her exam, according to the complaint.

She received 1380 out of a possible 1600, which was in the 96th percentile nationally, but Huneeus complained about this score in a phone call to the first unnamed witness, prosecutors wrote.

“If you had wanted to, I mean [my daughter’s] score could have been 1550 right?” Prosecutors say Huneeus told the first witness in a wiretapped phone call, authorized by the court.

“No,” said the first witness, according to court documents. “’Cause I would have got investigated for sure based on her grades.”

The filing also details conversations in which the first witness allegedly explains to Huneeus that his daughter will be “essentially … admitted before she has even applied” and will make the $50,000 payment after his daughter receives her admissions letter. Huneeus acknowledged during that call that his daughter wasn’t “worthy to be on that team” and he worried about “this thing blow[ing] up in my face,” according to the filing.

The first unnamed witness called Huneeus in November to warn him that the foundation was being audited and he planned to say that Huneeus’s $50,000 payment was a donation for underserved kids, according to the complaint.

“Dude, dude, what do you think, I’m a moron?” Huneeus said, according to prosecutors, later adding: “I’m going to say that I’ve been inspired how you’re helping underprivileged kids get into college. Totally got it.”

The first unnamed witness sent Heinel of USC an email with Huneeus’ daughter’s transcripts, fake SAT score, picture of another girl playing water polo and a fake athletic profile that claimed she was a three-year varsity letter winner, prosecutors wrote.

Huneeus was also expected to make a $200,000 payment to the Key Worldwide Foundation, according to the complaint.

Huneeus and the first unnamed witness communicated about their plans over email, at times, according to the lawsuit.Attempts to contact Huneeus through email addresses and phone numbers associated with him online were not successful Tuesday morning.

Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.

No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the students were not aware of the fraud.

The coaches worked at such schools as Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, tennis and volleyball accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. That, in turn, boosted the students’ chances of admission.

The bribes allegedly came through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid the founder of the Edge College & Career Network approximately $25 million to get their children into college.

Loughlin appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House,” and Huffman starred in ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Both were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud.

Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance cheating scam.

Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained the scam to them. The cooperator told investigators that Huffman and her spouse “agreed to the plan.”

A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment. Messages seeking comment from Huffman’s representatives were not immediately returned.

Jennifer Huffman / Jennifer Huffman, Register 

Spouses Katrina and Thomas O'Quinn of Napa are fighting a similar kind of cancer at the same time. 

Wine Industry
Napa County supervisors send Caldewell winery back to Planning Commission

The Caldwell Vineyard winery case is returning to the Napa County Planning Commission with Board of Supervisors guidance on how to balance traffic and visitation in an area served by a narrow, rural road.

Supervisors on Tuesday heard an appeal of the Planning Commission’s denial of the Coombsville area winery’s growth requests. They remanded the case to the commission for further deliberations with a long list of things to consider.

“To simply deny this does not give certainty to what we expect in these rural road scenarios,” Supervisor Belia Ramos said.

Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said after the meeting that the Caldwell case could return to the Planning Commission in late April or early May.

This case could have implications for other, proposed winery expansions along narrow, off-the-beaten-path roads with rural residents. The rise of direct-to-consumer marketing has led to wineries seeking more visitors, which can create tensions in places served by narrow, less-traveled roads.

Caldwell Vineyard winery is located at 270 Kreuzer Lane, a rural road east of the city of Napa. The Caldwells asked to increase wine production from 25,000 gallons annually to 35,000 gallons annually and increase the number of employees, among other things.

Most controversially, they asked to increase visitation. A proposal before the Planning Commission called for increasing maximum daily visitation from eight guests to 35 guests. It called for increasing annual marketing events from 13 to 19. Annual visitation would rise from 2,350 guests to 13,115 guests.

Caldwell Vineyard officials at the Board of Supervisors meeting proposed reductions that county staff said would bring annual visitation to 9,605 guests.

Supervisors want planning commissioners to consider such ideas as phasing in visitation increases, capping vehicle trips to the winery and enforcing the limit with a trip monitoring system, having the winery keep its visitor log numbers under penalty of perjury and having the winery make annual reports to the commission.

Supervisor Diane Dillon was the lone supervisor who voted against the remand because she favored denying the appeal. She too has issues she said need to be considered and raised the specter of the 2017 Atlas fire that burned in the hills near the winery.

“Is there no consideration of fire season coinciding with peak visitation season? ... October 2017 was not a one-off,” Dillon said.

Neighbors at 14 residences along Kreuzer Lane have formed the Kreuzer Lane Protection Committee. Attorney Denis Shanagher on their behalf said the requested increased visitation is too much for a narrow road in the agricultural watershed zoning district.

“Your Planning Commission got this absolutely right,” Shanagher told supervisors during the public comments period before the Board’s discussion.

Caldwell Vineyard cultivates a bit of an outlaw image for its marketing, with its website saying that the winery is “a little bit about misbehaving, taking chances and mischief.” But founder John Caldwell was all business before the Board of Supervisors.

He explained how he bought the first parcels of his Kreuzer Lane property in 1974, planted grapes in 1980 and built a winery in 2002. His use permit allowed eight visitors a day at a time before direct-to-consumer sales became necessary for a small winery to survive, he said. That’s why he wants the increase.

“This is really what we need going forward to stay in business in Napa Valley,” Caldwell told supervisors. “It really is make or break for us.”

Attorney Tom Adams on behalf of the Caldwells said the environmental analysis for a bigger version of the project concluded there are no significant impacts. He said winery officials to the best of their ability reached out to neighbors to try to get meaningful input.

“Some just haven’t been able to be satisfied,” Adams said.

Kreuzer Lane resident Faith D’Aluisio told supervisors that tour buses going to the winery have blocked driveways, winery visitors have tromped through yards and tour groups have been noisy. She said Caldwell winery activities “threaten to swallow our small neighborhood whole.”

Neighborhood resident Matt Sabella said winery visitation that might be acceptable for a Silverado Trail winery isn’t suitable for every location.

“The expansion requested is completely out of proportion for the Kreuzer Lane neighborhood,” he said.

In the written Caldwell appeal, Adams wrote that some neighbors are objecting to an agricultural operation, despite the county’s right-to-farm law.

“Put simply, in Napa County, agriculture includes the right to produce, market and sell wine – even if it conflicts with ‘urban’ uses,” Adams wrote. “In a conflict between agriculture and urban (i.e. residences), county policy is that agriculture prevails.”

County resident Steven Rea asked supervisors to favor the Caldwell proposal.

“It is true the small family farmers living in the valley are watching,” he said.

Several Kreuzer Lane residents said they are not against agriculture, but rather oppose tourism activities at a level that one person compared to a “daily carnival.”

Kreuzer Lane resident Vince Siebern told supervisors that Caldwell winery has the right to increase its patronage, “but not at the expense of driving the rest of us batty by people driving up the road all of the time.”

He objected to the amount of visitors that Caldwell winery sought. So did Kreuzer Lane resident Joseph Sabella.

“Were not NIMBYs,” Sabella said. “We’re not here to destroy the Caldwell winery.”

Napa County DA won't charge PG&E for possible role in wildfires, officials say

The Napa County District Attorney will not criminally charge Pacific Gas and Electric Company for matters related to the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires, officials say.

The news broke Tuesday, when the Sonoma County District Attorney announced that neither its office, nor district attorney’s offices in Napa, Humboldt and Lake counties would file charges because there was not enough evidence to prove PG&E “acted with a reckless disregard for human life in causing the fires” beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the statement.

The Napa County DA’s office issued a similar statement hours later.

Cal Fire determined PG&E equipment was at fault for fires in each of the counties, including the Atlas and Partrick fires in Napa County. Cal Fire sent its reports to district attorneys offices in those counties, according to the statement.

Those cases would require proof that PG&E was criminally negligent for failing to remove dead or dying trees, the Sonoma DA wrote. That was hard to prove because fires decimated any possible physical evidence, according to the statement.

The city and county of Napa have both sued PG&E for damages resulting from the fires. Those cases are on hold since the utility filed for bankruptcy.

PG&E, which also faces scores of lawsuits from burned out property owners, issued a two-sentence statement Tuesday that did not address the decision by DAs not to file criminal charges.

The statement said: “The safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve remains our highest priority. We continue to focus on helping our customers and communities in these counties continue to recover and rebuild.“

The Atlas Fire, which burned 51,624 acres, destroyed 783 structures and resulted in six deaths in Soda Canyon and Silverado areas, started in two locations on the same PG&E power line, Cal Fire said. At one location, a large limb broke from a tree and came into contact with the line and, at the other location a tree fell into the line.

The Partrick and Nuns fires in Napa County – part of a series of fires that merged in Sonoma and Napa counties – have also been connected to PG&E, Cal Fire said.

The Partrick Fire in west Napa was caused by an oak tree falling into power lines, and the Nuns Fire was caused by a broken tree top coming into contact with a power line, Cal Fire said.

The Partrick and Nuns fires were part of a combination of Napa-Sonoma blazes that burned a total of 56,556 acres, destroyed 1,355 structures and resulted in three deaths. The Atlas Fire is not part of this total.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.