Former URI tennis coach pleads not guilty in college admissions scandal

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Former URI tennis coach pleads not guilty in bribery scandal

BOSTON, Mass. (WPRI) — The man who resigned as URI women’s tennis coach on Friday pleaded not guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge on Monday related to his time as a coach at Georgetown University.

Gordon Ernst was the first of a dozen defendants to be arraigned Monday in the college admissions scandal dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.” The accusations against Ernst stem from his time as the head men’s and women’s tennis coach at Georgetown.

According to an indictment, Ernst allegedly accepted $2.7 million in bribes between 2012 and 2018 from the college consulting company owned by William Rick Singer, whom prosecutors say was the ringleader of the scheme, and has already pleaded guilty.

The indictment says: “In exchange for the bribes, Ernst designated at least 12 applicants as recruits for the Georgetown tennis team, including some who did not play tennis competitively, thereby facilitating their admission to Georgetown.”

Ernst declined to comment outside court. His attorney, Tracy Miner, said they would fight the charge.

Inside the courtroom, the judge allowed Ernst’s conditions of release to be expanded to allow travel within the continental United States, with advance notice to pre-trial services. In a motion he filed on Friday, Ernst had asked to be able to travel to visit his mother in Rhode Island, and also to seek employment as a tennis professional, possibly in Florida or California.

Ernst lives in Maryland and also owns a condo in Falmouth, which he’s been ordered not to sell while the case is pending. Prosecutors say the condo could be seized during asset forfeiture if he is convicted, along with his membership at the Chevy Chase country club in Maryland.

The president of Georgetown University said last week he was “deeply troubled” by the allegations against Ernst, despite the fact that the university had already conducted an internal investigation into Ernst’s admission practices.

According to an FAQ page posted to Georgetown’s website, the university admissions office noticed “irregularities” in the athletic abilities of students Ernst had recruited to play tennis. The university asserts it did not know he allegedly received bribes.

Ernst was placed on leave in December 2017 and ultimately asked to resign.

He was then hired by the University of Rhode Island in the summer of 2018 to be the women’s head tennis coach. According to URI spokesperson Shane Donaldson, Ernst passed a background check and was given positive recommendations. Donaldson said URI’s athletic director specifically spoke to the Georgetown athletic director, who did not report any personnel issues or mention the admissions investigation.

Matt Hill, a spokesperson for Georgetown, provided this response in an email Monday: “It was widely known that Mr. Ernst had been on leave since Dec. 2017 and had not been permitted to coach students since that time. Any statement Georgetown made after asking him to resign focused on his athletic record only.”

The other defendants arraigned Monday are accused of either receiving or facilitating bribes as part of the admissions scandal. Prosecutors say parents paid Singer’s company to bribe coaches and SAT proctors to help falsify standardized tests or athletic ability, in order to give students a leg up at acceptance to elite universities like Yale, USC and Georgetown. 

The eleven other defendants arraigned Monday all pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy racketeering charge. The defendants were Donna Heinel, an athletic director at the University of Southern California; Laura Janke, a former assistant soccer coach at USC; Ali Khosroshahin, former head women’s soccer coach at USC; Steven Masera, former employee of Singer’s Key Worldwide company; Mikaela Sanford, another Key Worldwide employee; Martin Fox, the president of a tennis camp; Igor Dvorskiy, a standardized test proctor; Lisa “Niki” Williams, another test proctor; William Ferguson, the women’s volleyball coach at Wake Forest; Jorge Salcedo, the men’s soccer coach at UCLA; and Jovan Vavic, the water polo coach at USC. 

Ferguson’s attorney Shaun Clarke spoke to reporters outside, denying that his client recruited anyone to the volleyball team who didn’t deserve it.

“No one was admitted to Wake Forest who didn’t earn it,” Clarke said. “Bill Ferguson does not belong in this indictment.”

Parents who allegedly paid bribes are also among the defendants charged in the case, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Both are scheduled to be arraigned in Boston next week.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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