For his almost-final act in office, Trump issued pardons to more than a hundred people. Big names like Steve Bannon and Lil Wayne soaked up a lot of the attention. But one of the strangest cases from the pardon list is only getting stranger.
Robert Zangrillo, an investor and developer, was one of the people charged in the 2019 college admissions scandal that law enforcement dubbed “Varsity Blues.” More than 50 people were charged with crimes relating to bribery of administrative officials in order to guarantee college admission for students who wouldn’t otherwise be qualified. Celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman found themselves entangled in the alleged scheme and ultimately cut plea deals for minimal jail time. But Zangrillo was among a small set of defendants who continued to fight the charges, and this week, the White House said he’s free to move on with his life. Here’s the exact statement from the White House press office:
Robert “Bob” Zangrillo – President Trump granted a full pardon to Robert Zangrillo. This pardon is supported by Len Blavatnik, Geoff Palmer, Tom Barrack, Sean Parker, Walid Abu-Zalaf, Medo Alsaloussi, and Kevin Downing. Mr. Zangrillo was charged in connection with the Varsity Blues investigation. However, his daughter did not have others take standardised tests for her and she is currently earning a 3.9 GPA at the University of Southern California. Mr. Zangrillo is a well-respected business leader and philanthropist.
Those four sentences seem to contain many falsehoods. First, there’s the issue of Sean Parker being named as a supporter of the pardon. There are many people in the world named Sean Parker, but it would be reasonable to assume the statement is referring to the famous tech entrepreneur known for his involvement in Napster, Facebook, and Spotify. The statement is intended to explain why a person was granted a pardon and to name high-profile figures who support it. But the famous Sean Parker has denied any involvement in Zangrillo’s fate.
Parker didn’t immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for the billionaire investor gave the same statement to multiple outlets: “Sean doesn’t know him and did not make any request for a pardon on his behalf.” And that’s all Parker’s people have to say about that, for now.
OK, that’s fair. Maybe it was just a different Sean Parker. But then there’s the issue of Tom Barrack, another person listed as a supporter of Zangrillo. Barrack is a prominent real estate investor and long-time associate of Donald Trump. He was chairman of Trump’s inauguration committee. Surely, the pardon is referring to that Tom Barrack, right?
Barrack’s spokespeople told news outlets that he “had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Zangrillo’s pardon,” and, “He never intervened and never had discussion with anyone about it. All reports to the contrary are patently false.”
What’s more, Barrack is a University of Southern California alumnus and a university trustee. USC was at the centre of the Varsity Blues scandal, and Zangrillo was accused by prosecutors of bribing officials at the university to fraudulently favour his daughter’s admission through a false claim that she was an accomplished rowing athlete. A spokesperson for the university told the Los Angeles Times that they have no comment on the pardon, but they did say that Zangrillo’s daughter is not enrolled at USC, despite the White House’s claim that she’s currently earning a 3.9 GPA there.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source familiar with Barrack told the Los Angeles Times that Zangrillo had reached out to the billionaire Trump confidant for help with his case but never made successful contact.
Practically by design, Trump’s pardon list doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why pardon Steve Bannon for his role in allegedly defrauding Trump supporters in a GoFundMe scheme to build a MAGA border wall, but leave Bannon’s co-defendants to fend for themselves? Why pardon Zangrillo but none of the other parents wrapped in the Varsity Blues scandal? At least we know that Bannon has a long relationship with Trump, but not much is known about the former president’s connection to Zangrillo.
Whatever the explanation for all this is, Zangrillo still has legal trouble on the horizon. He is currently being sued by the FTC for his alleged involvement in running a network of websites that fraudulently claimed to offer government services.