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Palatella named in college admissions cheating scandal

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By Randy Patrick

Marci Palatella, owner of Preservation Distillery in Bardstown, is one 50 people in six states accused in a racketeering case involving cheating on admissions exams and bribing coaches to admit students to prestigious colleges and universities.

An affidavit released along with an indictment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts claims Palatella paid more than half a million dollars to get her son into the University of Southern California as a football recruit.

Palatella, who is also president of International Beverage, a liquor distribution company in Burlingame, Calif., did not return phone calls Wednesday to her extension at that company’s offices or her cell phone. And when The Standard called Preservation Distillery, an employee would not confirm whether Palatella was in Bardstown and said the company would have no comment.

Palatella, 63, is a resident of Hillsborough, Calif., and the wife of Lou Palatella, a former player for the San Francisco 49ers. He is not a listed as a defendant in the case.

According to the affadavit, Palatella took part in both the entrance exam cheating and athletic recruitment schemes.

The investigation centers on Edge College & Career Network LLC, a college counseling and preparation service founded by William “Rick” Singer in California in 2007, and his purported charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation.

‘He can never know’

According to the March 5 affadavit attached to the federal grand jury indictment, a witness claims to have arranged for Palatella’s son to be evaluated by a psychologist in 2016 to qualify for more time to take his ACT and SAT entrance exams. The student was given an extension to take his SAT in Los Angeles on March 11 and 12, 2017.

On March 7, Palatella wired $75,000 to one of the KWF charitable accounts, and three days later, a second witness in the case flew to L.A. from Tampa to proctor the exam. Palatella’s son was credited a score of 1410 out of a possible 1600.

About that time, Palatella also inquired about the recruitment scheme, and in an email exchange, was asked whether she would be willing to contribute several hundred thousand dollars.

Palatella replied: “Money, for the right environment. Yes. But he can never know.”

The next day she was given a price list for what it might cost, even with “the fudging of the scores,” and was told that without “solid scores,” her son could not get in unless she was willing to ante up “many millions.”

“The only way in is through athletics due to the leeway given athletes,” the witness advised her.

Palatella said her son had taken a year off from football because he needed a break and would play the following year, but he was small for a big-school football player.

Palatella emailed the first witness a photo of her son in his uniform, along with his grades and test scores, including the SAT score. Laura Janke, an assistant women’s soccer coach at USC, then allegedly created a false profile for the youth, describing him as an active player, a member of the defensive line, a “long snapper” and a member of several local and statewide championship teams between 2015 and 2017.

Donna Heinel, senior associate athletics director at the university, later presented Palatella’s son to an athletics admissions subcommittee. On Nov. 30, Heinel emailed the first witness a conditional acceptance letter, which the witness forwarded to the mother.

‘Worth every cent’

The next day, according to the affadavit, Palatella mailed Heinel a $100,000 check to the USC Women’s Athletic Board with a note saying her son was “thrilled at the prospect of attending USC as a freshman this fall.”

On March 22, 2018, USC mailed Palatella’s son his formal acceptance letter, and on April 1, the mother wired $400,000, as requested, to Key Worldwide Foundation.

At the direction of law enforcement agents, the first witness called Palatella on Oct. 24 from Boston to tell her that his foundation was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, and they had asked about her payments.

The witness said the IRS was told the money was to help “underserved kids” and that Palatella took a tax write-off for her donation.

The witness said he was telling her because he wanted to make sure their stories were the same in case anyone asked her questions.

On Jan. 10, 2019, according to the affadavit, Palatella called the first witness to tell him about a phone call with a neighbor, whom she had told in confidence that she had paid $200,000 to secure her son’s admission to USC — although she had actually paid two and a half times that amount, according to the indictment.

Palatella allegedly told the witness that she and her husband “laugh every day” about their gratitude for his services, which, she said, “were worth every cent.”

The case is the U.S. Justice Department’s largest-ever college admissions prosecution. Defendants include Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders accused of making $25 million in payments to Singer, who is cooperating in the investigation.