Texas Tennis Coach Gets Six Months in College Admissions Scandal

(Bloomberg) -- The former University of Texas at Austin men’s tennis coach was sentenced to six months in prison for taking $100,000 in bribes to help a wealthy family’s son win admission to the elite state school as a phony athletic recruit.

Michael Center, 56, was sentenced Monday in federal court in Boston after pleading guilty in April to accepting payments from corrupt college admissions consultant Rick Singer. More than 50 people, including 36 parents, have been charged as part of a sprawling Justice Department investigation focused on Singer.

U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns adopted prosecutors’ recommended sentence for Center, saying the former coach’s conduct represented “outright avarice” and “impugned” the integrity of the college admission system.

Center wept openly as he was sentenced, at first collapsing in his chair and then slumping over the defense table.

Singer helped many of his clients by arranging bribes to college coaches to fraudulently designate their children athletic recruits worthy of preferential admission. Several coaches at schools including Yale, Georgetown and Stanford, are facing charges or have already pleaded guilty to accepting payments.

Parking Lot Payment

In Center’s case, Singer flew to Austin to meet the coach on June 22, 2015, and delivered the cash in a hotel parking lot before flying back to San Francisco hours later, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent said in an affidavit.

A coach for over 20 years, Center had urged the judge not to send him to jail, apologizing profusely for his actions. “Judge, if there is any way you could keep me home with my family, I would be so grateful,” he said. “I just want you to know how sorry I am.”

Jack Cunha, Center’s lawyer, argued jail time was unnecessary because his client had been punished enough by losing both his job and his reputation. “He has lost so much and he’s never going to be in that situation again,” said Cunha. “He is shamed. He is brought low by what he did.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright noted that the sentence the government was seeking for Center was already below the guidelines for his crime of 15 to 21 months. She said the sentence was lower because Center had rejected another offer from Singer to help another candidate, fully cooperated with authorities and appeared “genuinely remorseful.”

The student Center helped was admitted in 2015 and was offered a scholarship to pay for his books. Cunha noted the student quit the tennis team on his first day of enrollment and forfeited the book scholarship.

Center was introduced to Singer by Martin Fox, a coach at a private tennis academy in Houston, who has pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme.

The father of the student donated more than $500,000 in stock to Singer’s charity Key Worldwide Foundation, according to investigators. The father has not been charged.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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