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Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign accepted $30,000 from disgraced Napa winemaker caught in college cheating scheme

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced Friday that he had signed a trio of bills meant to improve the integrity of college admissions in the wake of a nationwide scandal involving top universities in California. But the governor did not address the $30,000 he received last year in campaign donations, according to state records, from a disgraced Napa Valley wine executive who on Friday was sentenced to five months in prison for his role in the scheme.

Agustin F. Huneeus, 53, of San Francisco, received a five-month prison sentence Friday from a federal judge in Boston after pleading guilty in May to illegally attempting to secure a spot for his daughter at the University of Southern California. His sentence also includes a $100,000 fine and 500 hours of community service, the Associated Press reported. The sentence was more than the two months of prison time requested by Huneeus, who until earlier this year was the CEO of Huneeus Vintners in Napa Valley, but far less than the 15 months sought by federal prosecutors.

In April 2018, Huneeus donated $30,000 to Newsom’s successful 2018 gubernatorial campaign, according to state campaign finance records. The contribution, representing a small fraction of the roughly $30 million Newsom’s campaign received in 2018, follows in the Huneeus family’s long pattern of political spending, supporting Democratic candidates and committees over the past several decades, records show.

The governor’s office did not respond Friday to multiple requests for comment about Agustin F. Huneeus’ financial support of his campaign.

Dan Newman, a spokesman for Newsom’s campaign, said after this story was published online that the campaign had donated Huneeus’ contribution to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund “immediately” after the vintner’s involvement in the college admission scandal became public in March.

Together, family members, mostly Huneeus’ parents, Agustin C. and Valeria Huneeus of San Francisco, have contributed more than $500,000 to elected officials and campaign committees over the past two decades, according to state and federal campaign finance reports. The beneficiaries, in addition to Newsom, include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

State and federal campaign finance records indicate that Huneeus donations to state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, amounted to $8,100 from 2013 to 2018. The records do not make clear whether they came from the younger or elder Huneeus, 86, or a combination of both men. Records show the son donated $5,400 in 2016 to Sen. Kamala Harris, the California Democrat who is now running for president. The donations to Harris came in her successful bid for the Senate.

Dodd’s spokesman declined to comment Friday. Harris’ campaign did not return a request for comment.

The governor’s office, in a news release hours before Huneeus’ sentencing, touted efforts “addressing the college admissions scandal that rocked some of California’s universities earlier this year” by signing a trio of bills. The legislation Newsom approved blocks individuals found guilty in the scandal from taking tax deductions for donations to charities involved in the scandal; requires higher education officials to inform lawmakers about any preferential treatment in admissions on the basis of connections to donors or alumni; and strengthens requirements for admitting applicants who don’t meet eligibility requirements but show potential, according to the governor’s office. He also signed a slate of other higher education bills related to financial aid, for-profit colleges and dual enrollment.

“Higher education has the power to transform lives, and all hardworking young people in our state deserve a shot at it,” Newsom said in a statement about the bill signing. “This package of bills strikes at the forces that keep the doors of opportunity closed to too many people in our state. Together, we’re improving affordability, transparency and integrity in higher education. I thank the Legislature for making this commitment to our students and our future.”

After he was charged in March, Huneeus transferred ownership of the family business to his father, a Chilean immigrant who founded a wine empire that includes the Quintessa brand and Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg. The younger Huneeus is one of more than 50 people implicated in a national scheme of wealthy parents who allegedly cheated or tried to scam college admissions systems to push their children into top U.S. colleges.

Huneeus agreed to pay $50,000 to help his daughter cheat on her SAT exam, and to pay another $250,000 to bolster her bid to attend USC by making it seem as if she were a scholarship-worthy water polo recruit, which she was not. Huneeus spent $100,000 before the scheme fell apart, and his daughter was not admitted to USC.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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