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Former Willkie Farr Co-Chair Gets One Month in College Scam (1)

Oct. 3, 2019, 4:42 PMUpdated: Oct. 3, 2019, 5:14 PM

Gordon Caplan, who left his job as co-chairman of the prestigious New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP this year amid the U.S. college-admissions scandal, was sentenced to one month in prison.

The sentencing, in federal court in Boston on Oct. 3, marked a dizzying descent for the once-highflying New York M&A lawyer. When he rang in the new year, he was a star at Willkie, which ranks 50th on the American Lawyer’s 2019 list of the top 100 law firms. The ranking cited profit per equity partner of $3.1 million.

“I disregarded the values I’ve had throughout my life,” Caplan told U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani just before she sentenced him. He said “the real victims of this crime are the kids and parents who play by the rules in the college admissions process.”

The sentence also includes a $50,000 fine and 250 hours of community service

Caplan pleaded guilty in May to a fraud-conspiracy charge, admitting he paid $75,000 to fix his daughter’s test scores. He asked for 14 days in jail, if he had to be incarcerated at all, acknowledging that Talwani had already sentenced two parents to four-month terms. He noted that the judge gave the “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman two weeks behind bars for having her daughter’s scores rigged.

Prosecutors had asked for a prison term of eight months, arguing Caplan showed a striking moral indifference, especially for a lawyer at the top of his profession.

In court on Oct. 3, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen said another factor was that Caplan had paid much more than Huffman, who laid out $15,000.

“The more money you pay to get something, the more serious you think the crime is,” Rosen said. “It reflects a willingness to do whatever it takes.”

Talwani rebuked the government for not giving the defense complete transcripts of phone calls between Caplan and Rick Singer, the scheme‘s mastermind, and ordered the U.S. to offer them in the future. Caplan’s lawyers, who were permitted to listen to a playback of the calls, said their client had refused to bribe a college athletic coach to ensure his daughter a seat, yet there is no transcript of that.

“I would agree with you he did not draw the line in the right place,” the judge told Rosen, “but I think it overstates it to say he had no line.”

The defense had blamed the stress of Caplan’s “family situation,” referring to circumstances redacted in court papers, and pointed to “the outsized role that money and special advantages already play” in college admissions.

“Gordon knows now that he allowed himself to fall prey to his own ego and ambitions for his children, confusing a desired result with what was best for his daughter,” Caplan’s lawyers wrote in a court filing before the hearing.

“The court is faced with the daunting task of deciding what additional punishment -- beyond his reputation, the fundamental breach of his daughter’s trust, his forfeited livelihood, and the destruction of his legal career—is sufficient,” they wrote to Talwani.

They said he was now “a broken man.”

In court, Caplan’s lawyer Joshua Levy took aim at the government’s claim that Caplan’s good character, burnished by his high standing in the law, were an act.

“That’s a cheap shot,” he said. He pointed to dozens of letters written in support of Caplan, many under seal because they involve his helping others through “mental illness, suicide and sexual abuse.”

“He’s a man who made a grave error in judgment, but he’s not a man who faked it through all the work he’s done,” Levy told the court.

The case is U.S. v. Abbott, 19-cr-10117, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

(Updates with courtroom exchanges starting in seventh paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story:
Janelle Lawrence in New York at jlawrence62@bloomberg.net;
Patricia Hurtado in Federal Court in Manhattan at pathurtado@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
David Glovin at dglovin@bloomberg.net
Peter Jeffrey