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Willkie Farr Co-Chair Charged in College Bribery Scheme (2)

March 12, 2019, 5:19 PMUpdated: March 12, 2019, 8:40 PM

Willkie Farr & Gallagher Co-Chairman Gordon R. Caplan has been charged along with dozens of others, including Hollywood actors and executives, in a criminal conspiracy to bribe college admissions officials to gain admission for their children to top universities.

Schools where the defendants sought to send their kids include Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and UCLA.

The defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1349. An arrest warrant was issued by a federal judge.

Caplan was arrested at 6:30 am Tuesday and was released on $500,000 bail after appearing in Manhattan federal court. Caplan’s attorneys, Patrick Smith and Peter S. Cane, declined to comment on the charges.

In New York, where Caplan is admitted to practice, an attorney who is convicted of a felony is automatically disbarred, according to Rebecca Roiphe, an ethics professor at New York Law School.

He could theoretically still practice for now , Roiphe said in an email. “But there’s no way that Willkie’s malpractice insurance would allow someone who is under indictment to practice as part of the firm,” she added.

Disbarment occurs when a lawyer pleads guilty to a felony or a verdict is rendered, Roiphe said. The only thing that could change this outcome for Caplan is if he pleads guilty to a misdemeanor, is acquitted, or the charges are somehow dropped, all of which seem highly unlikely, she said.

Caplan wouldn’t be automatically disbarred in the case of a misdemeanor, said Mark C. Zauderer, a partner with Ganfer Shore Leeds & Zauderer in New York, whose practice includes professional liability defense.

The state disciplinary authorities generally respect the outcomes of a trial, he said, but they could act under their own standards in the case of a misdemeanor. This could lead to any number of outcomes including censure, suspension, or disbarment, Zauderer said.

And even if Caplan’s acquitted of the charges, the disciplinary authorities have a different standard than the justice system so he could nevertheless face discipline, said Roy D. Simon, a legal ethics professor at Hofstra University.

Dozens Accused

Dozens of people stand accused alongside Caplan including coaches and parents. Among them are actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who allegedly paid bribes to win admission for their children.

Caplan and the other named defendants have been accused of conspiring to bribe college entrance exam administrators to:

  • facilitate cheating on college entrance exams;

  • bribe varsity coaches and administrators at elite universities to designate certain applicants as recruited athletes or as other favored candidates, thereby helping them gain admission to those universities; and

  • use the façade of a charitable organization to conceal the nature and source of the bribe payments.

Caplan, described in the complaint as “an attorney and the co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York,” has been charged with donating $75,000 to the Key Worldwide Foundation. In an exchange detailed in court filings, two of the FBI’s cooperating witnesses agreed to proctor his daughter’s college entrance exam and correct the answers after she finished it.

Caplan, who attended Cornell University for undergrad and Fordham University School of Law, is a member of the firm’s executive committee and a partner in the private equity practice group and corporate & financial services department.

He’s represented major clients like Insight Venture Capital as well as Hudson’s Bay Company. Caplan represented Hudson’s Bay in its $2.9 billion acquisition of Saks Incorporated, according to his law firm profile.

Willkie Farr didn’t return a request for comment.

With assistance from Patricia Hurtado (Bloomberg News), Janet Lorin (Bloomberg News), Erik Larson (Bloomberg News), and Chris Dolmetsch (Bloomberg News).

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com.