Napa Valley vintner Agustin Huneeus asks judge handling college admissions scandal for 2 months in jail
Napa Valley vintner Agustin Francisco Huneeus has asked a federal judge in Boston for a two-month prison term, much more lenient than the 15 months prosecutors recommended the judge give him when he appears in court Friday to receive punishment for his role in the college admissions bribery scandal.
Huneeus made the request for leniency in court papers filed last week, writing to U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani that he wants “to pay my dues and feel clean again” and that he knows “this experience will define the rest of my life and it’s up to me whether it will define me in a good or bad way.”
Huneeus, a 53-year-old San Francisco resident, pleaded guilty in May to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for his participation in a nationwide scheme in which wealthy parents — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — paid bribes to get their children admitted to elite colleges.
Judge Talwani will decide the sentence Huneeus deserves for his crime in a case that has triggered strong reactions from many people nationwide. The scandal spotlights the intersection of wealth and celebrity with the stiff competition among high school students to gain admission at top U.S. colleges. Prosecutors noted in a court filing last month the case has been a “kind of Rorschach test for middle class angst about college admissions.”
Last month, Talwani sentenced Huffman to 14 days in jail. Like Huneeus, Huffman was one of 11 individuals who already have pleaded guilty rather than go to trial and are included in this latest round of sentencings. But Huffman was on the low end of the sentencing recommendations from federal prosecutors, while Huneeus and one other co-defendant are on the high end. About 50 people overall were charged.
Prosecutors alleged Huneeus worked with a key figure in the scheme, in which the wine executive agreed to pay $50,000 to a corrupt test proctor to allow his daughter to cheat on her SAT exam. He also agreed to pay $250,000 to help her gain admission at the University of Southern California as a water polo recruit on scholarship, even though she wasn’t qualified to play at the collegiate level. His daughter, a former student at Marin Academy, received conditional acceptance from USC on Nov. 7, 2018, but never was admitted to the university. He actually paid $100,000 before the admissions scheme unraveled.
Prosecutors contended that Huneeus’ actions went beyond the others in the bribery scheme, especially because he was involved in the SAT exam cheating, as well as the admissions bribery over a full two-year period.
“Huneeus was not deterred by the criminality of his conduct or the fear that his crime would be discovered. He embraced the fraud, wanted to expand it, and even proposed involving two of his daughters in it. The term of imprisonment recommended by the government is the only appropriate sentence in such circumstances,” prosecutors wrote in court papers recommending to the judge the 15-month prison sentence for the vintner.
After his arrest in March, Huneeus stepped down as owner and operator of Napa-based Huneeus Vintners, which owns the Quintessa brand, and Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg. He relinquished control to his 86-year-old father, Agustin C. Huneeus, who had retired from the wine empire that he created as a Chilean immigrant who previously had operated global wine brands. In July, Nick Withers, a veteran of Constellation Brands Inc., was hired as president of Huneeus Vintners. The younger Huneeus gave up control of the family business because his arrest placed the company’s license to produce and sell wine in jeopardy. He’s been free on $1 million bail since the arrest.